Tag Archives: bregenzer festspiele

Franco Faccio’s ‘Amleto’ at Bregenzer Festspiele

Last night’s premiere of Amleto at the Bregenzer Festspiele was a shot of adrenaline to the arm of the indoor opera house, which often lives in the shadow of its sibling on the lake, the festival’s crown jewel. It was my fifth indoors premiere, and, by a long shot, it was the most well-received performance there I’ve witnessed.

bregenz amleto(photo courtesy of Bregenzer Festspiele)

With the festival’s new artistic director Elisabeth Sobotka moving away from her predecessor David Pountney’s habit of commissions and world premieres for the indoor theater with last year’s The Tales of Hoffman by Offenbach, it seems that now a fig leaf has been offered to recent tradition: the European “re-premiere” of a little-known work not performed on the continent since 1871 (or anywhere until the 2014 reconstruction by Anthony Barrese and staging by Albuquerque’s Opera Southwest), Franco Faccio’s Amleto. (Also, interestingly, Sobotka herself is a Faccio specialist.)

While I admit that I wasn’t here for the 2010 premiere of the much-lauded The Passenger (by Weinberg), I’ve otherwise seen the premieres run much of the gamut. In talking to folks both behind the scenes and in the audience over the years, it seems that each year from 2011 to 2014 improved (both the piece and its reception by audience and performers alike), and I’d have to say I largely agree. In order, those were Judith Weir’s Achterbahn (2011), Detlev Glanert’s Solaris (2012), André Tchaikowsky’s The Merchant of Venice (1982, premiered 2013), and H.K. Gruber’s Geschichten aus dem Wiener Wald (2014). I’ll avoid giving tangential reviews of each here, but suffice it to say I genuinely enjoyed much of the latter three (and some music of the first, from what I remember). (Despite the questionable handling of race, that is. An unfortunate occurrence in most of them but particularly in Solaris, and – sigh – a modern hallmark of opera anyway…)

With Amleto, Sobotka is bringing 19th-century Italian opera – of the progressive, proto-verismo sort – to a stage once dominated by modern instrumental and vocal techniques and mores. That’s not to say that, as a whole, older works are “less than” (not at all…hello, Wagner). But, despite the inconsistency, I did greatly appreciate and respect the festival’s (Pountney’s?) preference for and willingness to take risks and commission and feature new works each year. In a canon-saturated economy, it seems that new productions of old works are far more important than new works. Knowing that I’d be seeing something genuinely new each year (along with the traditional fare and spectacle on the lake stage) was exciting. (Though, the realities of life do sink in, and the festival was tired of losing money on the premieres.)

All that, however, is not meant to hang a cloud over Faccio and librettist Boito, Barrese, and Sobotka, but rather to simply say that things are different now — not better or worse, just different. Considering last night’s performance in a vacuum, it was definitely a success, and I quite enjoyed it.

You can read all about the history of Amleto and Faccio here. Briefly, Faccio, a leading conductor in Italy (particularly at Milan’s La Scala) was an important figure in the scapigliatura movement. Known mostly as a conductor, he also composed some, including the little-known Amleto, which premiered in Genoa in 1865 and then was quickly shelved and forgotten after a disastrous 1871 La Scala debut. Reconstructing the score from piano reductions over several years, Anthony Barrese then resurrected the work in a 2014 debut by Opera Southwest. (Audio and video recordings featuring strong performances and a moderately traditional production by Opera Southwest are now available.)

Faccio’s score, though nonetheless in the Italian tradition, is forward-thinking and engaging, tending to opt for the dramatic than a melodious hit parade. Boito’s libretto greatly streamlines Shakespeare’s Hamlet for time, and the four acts run shy of 150 minutes (without intermission).

The Bregenz production was led by director Olivier Tambosi and set designer Frank Philipp Schlössmann. Tambosi is a fixture in Europe and the US, and Schlössmann’s work is seemingly everywhere Deutsche Grammophon has advertising lately, as his work for Katharina Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde from 2015’s Bayreuth festival can be seen wherever DVDs are sold. The performers and production each stood on their own, but their sum was much greater than their considerable parts. The stark sets and striking use (or absence of) color throughout — with possibly a hint of Tim Burton — helped to propel the narrative. The production team also placed action where there otherwise may not have been any (e.g., overtures and other instrumental passages, underneath an aria, etc.). Two examples stand out. For the opening overture, the orchestra begins after the curtains have already open to display (an unconscious?) Amleto laying on the ground under a lowered light rig. (Is he dreaming? Is he already feeling the psychological pressure of all the lights (eyes?) being on him?) Later, in the overture to Act III, instead of beginning with King Claudius at prayer, we see him awake in his chambers and slowly walk to the chapel, adding weight where the previously was little. Also, much is done with Laertes when he’s not singing. He’s occasionally lurking in the background when Amleto and Ofelia are near one another.

To continue begging the question as to whether we’re watching Amleto in or out of his mind, a seemingly outward-facing curtain is at the back of the stage through Act I. And during Amleto’s first duets with both Ofelia and The Ghost (of his father), he curiously lies down. Is he dreaming or hallucinating?

And nearly everyone who’s not Amleto sports an Illuminati-esque eye on their clothes. Is this to represent their looking at (and putting psychological pressure on) Amleto, or representing to the audience how Amleto sees them? In his incomplete attempt to don a mime’s makeup in Act II, is he looking to become anonymous and erase his identity, becoming just another faceless clown in the court? As he descends further into madness, the makeup then starts to gradually fade in the second half.

One curious musical device that I don’t believe was used — at least so extensively — by Opera Southwest is that of offstage orchestral forces. There seemed to be a separate and permanent offstage brass (and more? hard to tell at times) section that remained throughout the whole of the work. I thought it had to do with the court in the first act, but then it remained. Perhaps this musical schizophrenia is to be reminiscent of Amleto’s gradual dissolution, though I could be reading too far into the lines. (I know it wasn’t a matter of real estate — Gruber’s orchestra for Wiener Wald dwarfed Faccio’s.)

The cast was quite strong overall, with standout performances by Pavel Černoch (Amleto), Iulia Maria Dan (Ofelia), Dshamilja Kaiser (Gertrude), and Claudio Sgura (Claudio). The two truly excellent moments of the evening belonged to the trio of Černoch, Kaiser, and Gianluca Buratto (The Ghost), and Dan’s final aria, both in Act III. That one-two punch set an impossibly high bar for the fourth act. And both in and out of the pit, Paolo Carignani led the Vienna Symphony Orchestra through a dynamic and moving run of the score.

Regardless of how one feels about old works and new, last night’s production and performance was an all-around success. I’ve not seen an audience applaud for a work in the indoor theater here as I did last night (along with one heckle from the balcony for the director…can’t win them all). I’ll be curious to see where not only this production but the work as a whole heads after this. As for the festival, Bregenz is getting its indoor stride, as next year will feature the certainly-not-new Moses in Ägypten by Rossini (alongside Bizet’s Carmen on the lake).

(And as for Pountney, he’s busy getting his Ring cycle off the ground in Chicago, for which Das Rheingold premieres in October. See you there.)

Austro-German Opera-ing 2013

I recently returned from my annual month-long course in Austria. It was another great program and I saw some great performances.

As mentioned before, the program is based in Bregenz, Austria, home of the Bregenzer Festspiele. I teach a music appreciation course focusing on opera, and as part of the program I take the students to both of the festival’s operas. This year featured Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte on the renowned floating stage and the posthumous world premiere of André Tchaikowsky‘s The Merchant of VeniceDie Zauberflöte was, as expected, pure spectacle, though it was well performed. (What else is there to expect when the Queen of the Night wears a crystal-encrusted gown with the help of Swarovski?) Tchaikowsky’s almost Berg-ian setting of Shakespeare’s Merchant was rather compelling. The official reviews have been mixed to positive, but I enjoyed it. The audience at the premiere was somewhat lukewarm, but I was told that subsequent performances were enthusiastically received.
Festival aside, I also took the group to see Verdi’s Attila at Vienna’s Theater an der Wien. This little-performed work was staged for Verdi’s bicentennial. Although it was far from a traditional staging, as it was featured a new production by renowned director Peter Konwitschny. Known for his association with the Regietheater movement, he directed a surprising and lovely production that was both entertaining and artistically satisfying. For example, Attila and his Huns were lost boys with wooden spoons and fur pelts, and the closing (supposedly serious) quartet portrayed the characters as senior citizens on the verge of comical deaths. While it’s not a scientific measurement, all but one of my students – many of whom hadn’t previously attended an opera – enjoyed the production. In fact, many of the students credited the production with their enjoying the opera overall. From what I could tell, the rest of the audience was in general agreement.
The crown jewel was my pilgrimage to Bayreuth to see the bicentenary production of Rienzi under the baton of renowned Wagnerian Christian Thielemann. The fact that one of the “orphans” was fully staged in Bayreuth is news alone, even if it didn’t take place in Wagner’s Festspielhaus. Nonetheless, it was under the banner of the annual Bayreuth Festival. And the audience’s excitement over Wagner, Bayreuth, and seeing a rarely-performed work fully staged under the direction of the Bayreuth Festival’s unofficial music director was palpable. Needless to say, this experience deserves its own post. (But doesn’t everything regarding the old wizard?)
It was a nice operatic assortment: Classical, Romantic (both Verdi and Wagner), and contemporary. I’m glad the students were able the productions (minus Wagner), as it was a great assortment both musically and visually.
What’s more, I’m glad to be home and getting back into the usual routine. Keep an eye out not only for new posts but also possibly a new release or two on the horizon.

Summer Recap

*Dusts keyboard off*

Well, my return to the blog at the beginning of August turned into my return at the beginning September. It’s been a great couple of months filled with music and travel, and it was far busier than I had anticipated. (And I expected a lot.)

This year’s study abroad program was another success, course-wise. Classroom business aside, I saw some great music while abroad. I saw Umberto Giordano’s Andrea Chénier again, this time with an even better cast. I also saw the world premiere of Detlev Glanert‘s Solaris. Until this year I was unfamiliar with his music, but I must say I’m fond of both his style and that opera specifically. (I’d like to cover my thoughts on that work more in depth at another time.) Both of those performances were part of the world-renowned Bregenzer Festspiele.

While in Europe, I also trekked to Montreux, Switzerland to attend an evening of jaw-dropping performances at the Montreux Jazz Festival. I’d never been, and fortunately the weekend I went included a great lineup: James Carter Organ Trio, Spectrum Road, and Neneh Cherry & The Thing. I initially planned to see Spectrum Road and Tricky share a double-bill, but Tricky backed out last minute and the other two bands served as replacements — it was better than the original lineup!) I’m a long-time Carter devotee, as has been described on this blog a time or two (MTH-V here), so seeing him for the seventh (?) time was a lovely surprise. Especially with his organ trio, he knows how to get the audience to its feet within just a couple minutes. (A couple choruses into his first solo, the audience was going nuts.) Spectrum Road – the fusion supergroup tribute to Tony Williams made up of John Medeski, Jack Bruce, Cindy Blackman Santana, and Vernon Reid – was ear- and mind-blowing. (It’s why I never travel without my earplugs.) They performed what I considered to be a near perfect blend of hard rock and jazz. It was the epitome of fusion. And if that wasn’t enough, John McLaughlin joined the band for the final two numbers. (!!!) The recent collaboration between Neneh Cherry and The Thing closed the show (and cleared the hall of those attendees with weak constitutions). They showcased a sublime blend of the avant-garde, spoken word, and groove. It was Pharoah Sanders meets trip-hop. I couldn’t get enough.

The last month has been busy with getting back into the groove, including a fun gig with The Fencemen just a couple days after I returned home. I don’t usually plug my dates and projects on here, but I figure every now and then can’t really hurt…

Recording-wise, White Gold Scorpio‘s new album Halloween Island is now available for free download until the official release on 10.31.12. WGS is a Brooklyn-based “noir”-rock project I’ve had the pleasure of contributing some tracks to. You can find me on two songs: “Scare You Like I Do” and “Throw Myself at You.” I really dig the album and encourage you to check it out.

Furthermore, Matt Borghi and I are wrapping up a full-length album for Teag & PK, our longtime collaboration, and we couldn’t be more proud. All of the recording, etc., is complete and we’re now just dealing with the logistics, prose, and visuals. I’ll discuss it more when it’s ready for release. It’s a series of ambient improvisations, and we think it’s some of the best stuff we’ve recorded in that regard. We can’t wait to share it with everyone!

July Update

Blog posts will be fewer and far between until the first part of August (e.g., no “MTH-V” this week). I’m teaching overseas and my schedule can get pretty hairy, but I’ll be writing when I can. It’s a busy but fun program filled with great music (Bregenzer Festspiele), art, and history. I’m also trying to wrap up some recent recording projects which I’ll discuss more fully later.

Until then, check out any previous posts you may have missed out on… 🙂

On New Music

I think a lot about “New Music.” Part of my preference for it is my Classical Saxophone perspective: (relatively) “new” instruments require new music to create a lexicon. And while not all new music (especially for saxophone) may be of high quality, you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs. Another reason for my dwelling on New Music is from a teaching perspective. In my Music Appreciation classes, I always expose my students to New Music and some of its related concepts. I don’t care that they like it, and they know it – I simply want them to experience it, and to be able to explain their (dis)liking it.

I’ve started a number of drafts of what would have been this post over the last few months, only to delete them all. Each time the article has branched off in a different direction. Instead of trying to encapsulate everything in a single post, I decided to cover each item separately. For this first article, I’d like to start with an anecdote from last year.

As mentioned in my previous MTH-V post, I attended Belgian new music ensemble ICTUS‘s Austrian premiere of Harry Partch‘s The Wayward. Their performance was part of the “Kunst aus der Zeit” (“Art of Our Times”) series, the small new music branch of the annual Bregenzer Festspiele. I was able to arrange for my students and myself to attend a closed rehearsal, and I attended the premiere two nights later. For those unfamiliar with Partch (and I’m guessing that’s most everyone reading this), in brief:
• Partch is one of the many, and arguably one of the least-known outside of musicians’ circles, composers who pursued an “American Sound” in the 1900s
• He pursued not only an American sound, but sought to create a new musical system based largely on microtonality
• Not stopping there, he constructed his own instruments to properly convey this new musical language
• Corporeality: “The dramatic fusion of human speech, music, and movement, and inseparable combination of these parts into a larger whole.”
• For more (better!) Partch information, explore Corporeal Meadows and HarryPartch.com.

Before going further, I should mention that I’m no Partch expert. My combined assigned reading in undergraduate and graduate school of his life and music totaled maybe ten paragraphs, one selection on a CD, and a VHS clip. And as for my teaching, he received, until this point, brief mention, if any, as an example of Twentieth Century tendencies. My unfamiliarity was actually one of the big reasons for my excitement for this performance.

The Wayward includes all of the above aspects, and is arguably his most-known work (relatively speaking, considering none of his music is “known”). Another way to put it – this was the one piece I knew of his offhand. Because his music was written for instruments he constructed, he receives little-to-no-performance outside of a few “Partch ensembles” (mostly run by his surviving associates and students). Unlike a standard classical work, one can’t simply purchase a score, assemble musicians, rehearse, and perform. This is largely why it took a half century for the Austrian premiere to occur. (The Wayward‘s four parts were composed in various stages from the 1940s to the 1960s.) That being said, ICTUS went about their performance in a drastically different manner. Instead of reconstructing the required instruments, composer Tim Mariën re-orchestrated The Wayward for performance on common (often fixed) instruments. Hence ICTUS’s more “traditional” approach. (And controversial, according to members of the aforementioned Partch ensembles…more on that later…)

The Wayward‘s biggest, and arguably most well known, movement/section is “U.S. Highball.” It illustrates a hobo’s transcontinental railroad journey, using vocal techniques more reminiscent of sprechstimme and American folk than more classical means. That programmatic context, along with the above bullet points, was pretty much all the preparation I gave my students before we attended the rehearsal. (That, with a dusting of, “You’ll think it sounds weird and likely incorrect, but please remember that the musicians are 110% serious about the piece…and it’s supposed to sound like that.”) My reasoning was that I wasn’t as concerned about their becoming intimately familiar with Partch specifically, but rather I wanted to lightly prepare them to hear a type of music they’d never heard before or since. In my judgement, having them experience the music live with little-to-no context would be a great experiment of sorts. (After attending the rehearsal, we had a comprehensive debriefing, both with myself and also with the organizer of the new music concert series.)

In a portion of their final reflective essays, I asked my students to select and explain both their favorite and least favorite of the musical events they attended throughout the course. While only one or two listed Partch as their favorite – one or two more than I had expected! – only a couple listed it as their least favorite. (The winner of that category was actually Judith Weir‘s opera Achterbahn, the world premiere of which we attended.) On paper, one would likely expect Partch to be the outright loser for an audience of non-musicians, but that is perhaps the problem: it’s what is expected on behalf of musicians (in this case, academic musicians). For those who listed it as neither, most students told me that they enjoyed it much more than they had anticipated, and that it showed them that contemporary music didn’t have to be something to necessarily fear or avoid. And part of their reason for accepting it (and even enjoying it) as they did was the fact that we attended a closed rehearsal. They were able to witness the ensemble occasionally start, stop, tinker, argue, and refine the music. It was a peek behind the curtain for something that, to them, could have otherwise been simply organized chaos.

Their overall positive reception caught me off guard. Pleasantly.

As evident in the article, this experience has stuck with me for a variety of reasons:
• I simply enjoyed the performance (and being able to attend the rehearsal).
• It was great to expose my students to such a rare piece of music.
• It was great to see something most academically-oriented musicians see as “out there” go over well with such a general audience. (The room full of Austrians at the premiere seemed to really enjoy the performance as well.)

ON NEW MUSIC: Advocates, The Ivory Tower:
Now, what does this have to do with concerns over “New Music”? Frankly many, but I’ll try to isolate just a few here. The first has to do with we musicians who advocate and perform such music. This unexpectedly, but welcomely, came to life in the comments section of my previous MTH-V post. I was taken to task, and rightfully so in a sense, by Jon Szanto. He curates Corporeal Meadows, a wonderful online Partch resource (one that I had actually used a few times myself before and after attending the Austrian performance), as well as having known Partch at the end of his life. He presented a very valid point: the ICTUS performance was not authentic, as it featured a re-orchestration for traditional instruments, and therefore the music was drastically cheapened. Amusingly, he said comparing ICTUS to Partch was like comparing the Portsmith Sinfonia to the Berlin Philharmonic. 🙂

I can’t argue with that. I’m a Partch novice, and the above performance was simply an introduction. In areas I’m much more comfortable and knowledgeable, I’m equally picky. For instance, one of my pet peeves is classical saxophonists obsessing too much over transcriptions. I hate to break it to my colleagues: Bach didn’t write for the saxophone. Neither did Mozart. As valuable – and necessary – as that music is to our technique and understanding of older styles in our practicing, it needn’t be the focal point of the instrument. Now and again it’s perfectly fine, but after a while you’re conveying more of an inferiority complex than anything, in my opinion.

This question of authenticity is proper for debate. After all, musicians should always look to honor the music. But when it comes to reaching listeners and advancing our art, the context changes. As Jon rightly noted, the Berlin Philharmonic is great. Amazing, actually. However, most laypeople don’t experience the Berlin Philharmonic. Instead they attend local, regional, and university orchestras, most of which are more akin to the Portsmith Sinfonia. Then, assuming they enjoy themselves, perhaps they’ll take a greater personal interest, discover more music, and eventually listen to (or even see) top tier ensembles such as the Berlin Philharmonic, New York Philharmonic, and Chicago Symphony Orchestra. As I told Jon, I remember attending performances of local classical and jazz ensembles in middle and high school, but now that I am one such performer I pretty much only seek out those top tier ensembles for performances. (Local rock scenes can function much the same way.) In this case, Jon and I agreed that ICTUS served this function for me. I was able to experience Harry Partch’s music live in some fashion, something most of my colleagues can’t claim, and now I’d like to eventually see “the real thing” (Partch music performed on Partch instruments). Since then I’ve invested in recordings and plan to purchase more.

ON NEW MUSIC: Audience:
This brings me to the final point (for this article, at least): reaching an audience. One of the biggest complaints among New Music enthusiasts is that no one besides fellow musicians wants to listen, or at least no one seeks it out. Fair enough, I suppose. But where is most of this New Music performed? In the United States, outside of major metropolitan centers, it’s largely relegated to university campuses (and associated churches and community centers when new music artists are on tours). That’s hardly getting it out there to the public. Of the many recitals I gave and/or attended while a student, rarely was there someone in the audience who wasn’t a friend, family member, fellow music student, or non-music student meeting a class/assignment requirement.

Perhaps one solution would be to take the show “on the road,” so to speak. Maybe instead of giving a performance in a university recital hall, it’s moved to a local space in town and off campus. I know some former classmates of mine did this with a (SCENE) & Heard It series at East Lansing’s (SCENE)Metrospace. Instead of waiting for the new ears to come to the performer, the performers can bring the music to new ears. Advertise it alongside local rock, jazz, and hip-hop acts. Put it in similar venues. Maybe even a double-bill of disparate but complementary acts/ensembles. What if – gasp! – you didn’t wear a suit or tuxedo to perform? Outside of my music appreciation course, my students didn’t have advanced musical knowledge when attending ICTUS’s performance, yet most of them quite enjoyed themselves. The setting was casual (granted it was a rehearsal, but the actual premiere didn’t require formal attire either), offering one more welcoming layer – or rather removing one more intimidating layer – to the first-timer. (Along those lines, The Corporeal Group asks similar questions [see bottom of page] about Partch’s music specifically, but those can also be applied to new music generally.)

Similarly, more “traditional” venues and series must be brought up to date. After the initial Occupy Wall Street protests, you may remember a number of comical OWS parodies. One that floated around music nerd-dom (of which I’m of course a member) was “1% of music students do 99% of the practicing.” Amusing, but it definitely had a point. Another that packed some punch was the following:

Very true. I know that music directors and money-managers want to appease their financial supporters, but perhaps their revenue base (i.e., patrons) would increase if they updated their programming. Works by Schönberg are still considered aesthetically challenging by many groups (100 years later, mind you…). Okay. But you could throw in that or Berg along with recent works by Torke, Colgrass, or Ades and still have time to open the show with some Haydn for good measure. I remember hearing this NPR story a few years ago about regional orchestras that banded together to co-commission new music by Joan Tower and finding much success. The move added cachê to these smaller groups’ reputations, added new music to their repertoire, created buzz in their communities, and possibly yielded a number of first-time concertgoers.

Obviously I’ve not covered everything here. There are many things I’ve missed (intentionally or otherwise), and I’ve provided more questions than answers, but it’s a start. Food for thought, if nothing else. It’s been my experience, at least with students, that they’re much more receptive to contemporary music when they see it performed live. Even if they don’t particularly love the musical style, the live experience at least causes them to respect and/or appreciate the work that goes into it.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or heard, “It was way better than I had expected,” or, “It was better in person than listening to the CD.” Definitely something to consider. If we performers take chances on the audience, perhaps audiences will taken chances on us.