Tag Archives: Benjamin Britten

San Francisco Opera: Terrific & Tragic Billy Budd

The San Francisco Opera’s presentation of Billy Budd ended with the matinee, Sunday, September 22, and still the music and drama play in my mind. The voices: absolutely first rate. The acting, set, costuming, direction, orchestra and conductor: all superb. The San Francisco Opera Orchestra, led by Lawrence Renes, captured Britten’s oceanic sound as well as the delicacy of the piccolo solo as Billy waits for execution. Readers, you may have missed this production of Billy Budd, but I hope this report encourages you to attend the opera when and where you have the opportunity. The excellence of this production promises greatness in the rest of SFO’s season.

John Chest, American baritone, portrayed Billy Budd. Eager, confident, honest, with a voice that possessed Billy’s “handsomeness, beauty, goodness” and pulled the listener into his heart while breaking the heart of the listener.

Benjamin Britten, major 20th century English composer, wrote the music set to a libretto by the great English author, E. M. Forster(Passage to India, Room with a View, Howard’s End) and Eric Crozier, a librettist and theater producer who directed Peter Grimes, Britten’s first opera, 1945, at Sadler’s Wells theater, in London. He also wrote the libretto for Albert Herring, another Britten opera. Billy Budd is based on an unfinished novella by Herman Melville. His manuscript was discovered one hundred years ago; this year is the two hundredth anniversary of Melville’s birth, in 1819. Now considered one of the central, most significant American authors, even Melville’s Moby Dick, disappeared soon after publication. He had critical and financial success with his first two novels, Typee and Omoo, but, after his later works were ignored, gave up writing novels, tried poetry, and then, in 1888, began Billy Budd. Melville passed away, in 1891.

Benjamin Britten (Nov. 1913-Dec. 1976)

Both Britten and Melville had a close relation to the sea. Britten was born in Lowescroft, a fishing port on England’s east coast. Melville actually was a sailor on whaling ships and in the Navy. His travels took him around the world. He had first hand knowledge of the closed  community on board ship and knew about the English tradition of “impressing” ordinary folks, kidnapping men and boys, to be in the Royal Navy. Britten’s music for Billy Budd captures the surging sound and rhythm of the ocean. The opera does not try to follow the novella exactly. Forster uses the characters, setting and part of the story line as a way to jump into some themes which Melville did not develop. These include the spiritual resolution offered in song by Billy and by Captain Vere. Melville did not appear to have a strong focus on religion or a specifically Christian understanding of death. Also, in the opera, there seems to be more awareness of what contemporary music writers refer to as “homo-erotic” sensuality. Having spent six months or more at a time on ships, Melville would know about relationships, but to the extent it appears in Billy Budd or Moby Dick it is more a reflection of reality than a theme.

American tenor William Burden portrayed Captain Vere with straightforward nobiity. His voice projected clarity, balance, humanity; it is a voice one could hear with pleasure for a long voyage.

The opera opens with Captain Vere, now old, beginning the story of what happened on his ship, HMS Indomitable, in 1797. In Michael Grandage’s brilliant production, the audience is enveloped in the ship. Built on the stage in a horseshoe shape opened toward the orchestra and house, the set shows the decks of the ship, the men/SF Opera Chorus kneeling on the deck/floor continually to scrape the salt off the ship. The production fit the opera ideally; I can only imagine it now with this set and direction. It also worked so well that the violence –flogging the Novice and hanging Billy –happened offstage as in classic Greek drama. The atmosphere is close; there is nowhere to go. There are no families, no pub, no market. The common sailor’s life is dictated by work enforced by cruelty. Three new sailors are brought aboard. They have been impressed and taken from the ship ironically named the Rights o’ Man. Claggart, the master-at-arms, uses the name of the ship as his first attack on the new sailor. Billy calls out farewell to friends and to the ship giving Claggart the opportunity to call Billy a revolutionary who must be watched.

American bass-baritone Christian Van Horn portrayed Claggart. He embodied the evil of the character. His powerful voice could command, insinuate, strike like a snake. 

From his first appearance on the Indomitable, Billy, has “handsomeness, beauty and goodness.” When he is under pressure, he stammers. He is liked and even admired by the men and hated by Claggart. The hatred has no special reason. It is total hate like Iago’s for Othello, a man who is better than he in so many ways. The audience feels apprehension that something terrible will happen and waits in suspense to know how it will unfold. Claggart preys on the weak Novice who was brutally flogged. He threatens the Novice with more violence if he does not cooperate in setting up Billy. At first, the Novice refuses because Billy is kind and good, but fear defeats him. This cast of seventy-five artists, forty-four of them from the SF Opera Chorus, is astoundingly good. Each projects a character, and all create a true crew. There are moments that lighten the tension. For example, in Act I, scene 3, the crew gathers to sing a late 18th century version of Rap, with each man’s rhyming verses entertaining the crowd. Billy offers to get Dansker tobacco. American bass-baritone, Philip Skinner, sings Dansker with a great, satisfying voice appropriate for a brave, true friend. Billy’s tobacco has been taken from his kit. He fights with Squeak who was set by Claggart to make trouble for Billy. American tenor, Matthew O’Neill as Squeak with presence and just the right voice creates the character willing to betray Billy who is then betrayed himself. The men are eager to attack the “Frenchies,” but fog and still winds keep them from a battle.

The crew of HMS Indomitable ready to attack the French.

Claggart (Van Horn) presses his case with Vere (Burden).

Then Claggart tells Vere that Billy is fomenting mutiny and has gold coins to bribe the crew. Given a chance to defend himself, Billy stammers. In frustration he strikes Claggart who falls dead. Vere calls three officers to serve as a court-martial. They can believe Billy, but Billy struck and killed an officer. By the Laws of War, he must die. The three officers are horrified by what they have done and ask Vere, the only witness, to stop the process, but Vere says he cannot.

Billy taken away for execution.

Surely one of the  most chilling, touching and beautiful songs in the opera is Billy’s solo while he waits to be executed. He is frightened and does not want to die. He imagines himself under the water, gone. Then, he imagines that he will be anchored by, what? Is it faith? Is it heaven? He sings, “I’m strong and I know it, and that’s enough.” He sings, “I’ve sighted a sail in the storm, the far–shining sail, and I’m content.” Vere reappears looking back through time and repeats Billy’s words about that sail. Vere also says he could have stopped it. And there’s the eye-opening, hair raising moment. He had said there was nothing he could do. He had to follow the letter of the law although he knew he was killing an angel. Now, he says, both that he could have done something and that he is “content.” In the battle between good and evil, Claggart won, but he only won by being killed. The optimism that the Goodness of the Good will find a safe harbor and that the humane regret of Captain Vere will somehow reach a contented resolution does not seem very Melville-like. The ambiguity of human life does, though. Imperfect and unfinished, just like the novella Billy Budd, that is what we are. Perhaps wisdom is to decide to be content. Perhaps.

Photo of John Chest by Andrey Stoycher; Billy taken for execution, Claggart with Vere, whole crew by Cory Weaver, courtesy the San Francisco Opera. Future operas of SFO’s season: The Marriage of Figaro, Oct. 11-Nov. 1, Manon Lescaut, Nov. 8-26, Hansel & Gretel, Nov. 15-Dec. 7.

 

James Conlon & S F Symphony: Triumphant Concert

jamesconlon_photo_by_chester_higgins__largeJames Conlon led the San Francisco Symphony in a bracing, thought provoking, thoroughly satisfying performance, June 11, at Davies Symphony Hall. The varied program included Sinfonia da Requiem, Op.20 (1940), by Benjamin Britten; Piano Concerto No. 22 in E-flat Maj., K. 482 (1785), by Mozart; Symphony No.8 in G maj., Op. 88 (1889), by Antonin Dvorak. In addition to great works from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, the selections offered a range of emotions and connections to human experience. The SF Symphony seemed completely in synch with Maestro Conlon. Bravo Bravo Bravo–one for each performance. And Bravo times two to the SFS and James Conlon.

BBrittenBefore beginning the Sinfonia da Requiem, Maestro Conlon addressed the audience to explain the origin of the composition. The Japanese government sought a European composer to create music for the celebration of the Imperial family’s 2600th anniversary as the ruling dynasty. The British Council, cultural arm of British diplomacy, approached Britten. Although Britten had been assured that he need not write nationalistic bombast, the Japanese rejected the Sinfonia. Britten had come to the US in 1939, the fateful, desperate year. Though far away, Britten was deeply distressed by of war across Europe and Asia. James Conlon concluded his remarks by observing that the Sinfonia was a requiem for the culture that was destroyed by the war. His voice caught a bit as he said this; it is plain that Conlon felt deeply the horrors of the war and the permanence of loss.  This is a great, surprising work in three movements, each named for Christian liturgy. Lacrymosa, the first, comes from a medieval hymn describing the Day of Judgment: “Lamentable is that day on which guilty man shall arise from the ashes to be judged.” There is nothing comforting about it; it has a driving, percussive force and cries from a saxophone. Without pause, the second movement, Dies irae begins. It is an irregular dance, fast and harsh. One might remember depictions of the dance of death in medieval art, but, sadly, it is not necessary to search art history to find meaningful connections. The final movement’s title, Requiem aeternam, comes from the Mass for the Dead: “Grant them eternal rest, O Lord, and let everlasting light shine upon them.” Phrases for flutes and horns alternate; chords from harps, clarinets and strings build fervently. All grows quieter and fades to eternity.

JanLisieckiJan Lisiecki was the soloist for Mozart’s Concerto. A twenty-one year old phenomenon, his mastery of the lovely Mozart work was secure and admirable. The concerto is notable, in addition to the brilliance of the piano, for the clarinets which Mozart included for the first time in a concerto. This work has everything that delights in a Mozart concerto: complexity of design and also complexity of feeling. While there are dashing themes and splendid allegros, it poses formal, spritely 18th century dances along with the sweetness of life in music.

220px-DvorakClosing the concert with Dvorak’s 8th Symphony was a gesture of affirmation. It is a compact work which gains power through compression. There are joyful, happy sounds of birds, dance rhythms, music which seems to pour directly from nature. Yet, despite the cheer, there is a sigh of awareness that this beauty is fragile. As the last movement, Allegro non troppo, rounds through music of our natural world, the listener senses a smile from Dvorak. There is strife and sadness, but we still enjoy the birdsong. The Hedgehog is grateful to James M. Keller for this quotation from Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelk, when rehearsing this Symphony: “Gentlemen, in Bohemia the trumpets never call to battle–they always call to the dance!”   James Conlon is Music Director of the Los Angeles Opera, Principal Conductor of the RAI National Symphony Orchestra, Torino, Italy; he has also been Music Director of the Ravinia Festival and Principal Conductor of the Paris National Opera. He first performed with the SFS, 1978. FOR MORE HEDGEHOG HIGHLIGHTS on Mozart, please see April 26, 2016, Hilary Hahn, violinist, playing Mozart’s Sonata in G maj. K379 (373 a), and Oct. 4, 2015, Andras Schiff, pianist, playing Mozart’s Sonata in D maj. for Piano, K.576. Pictures, from top: James Conlon, Jan Lisiecki, Antonin Dvorak.

 

KREMERATA BALTICA: Violins, Part III

GKremerViolinist Gidon Kremer’s art has been celebrated since he first entered the Riga Music School at age 7. Winning the highest prizes in Latvia, among his rewards was his trip to the USSR to spend two years studying in Moscow with their most eminent violinist, David Oistrakh. Kremer went on to win more distinction, including 1st Prize in the Tchaikowsky International Competition, in 1970, at age 23. His performance on Feb. 2, 2014, in San Francisco, showed that there is even more depth and humanity to him than being one of the world’s great musicians. He performed as leader and soloist with the Kremerata Baltica, a chamber orchestra which he founded in 1997. It is composed of young musicians from the Baltic nations (Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia). The musicians, younger than Mr.Kremer, not children, are exquisite players. They are “together” in every sense of the word, creating a strong and flexible sound that suits the most lyrical and the harshest music their program asked of them. It was a stunning performance of challenging music, new to this listener and, it appeared, to most of the audience. In addition to championing musicians from the Baltics, Mr. Kremer is the champion of music by modern composers like Britten and Shostakovich, and less well known Eastern European composers such as Mieczyslaw (Moisey) Weinberg. They performed Violin Sonata Op.134, by Shostakovich; Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op.10, by Britten; Symphony #10, by Weinberg; Concertino for Violin and Strings, Op. 42, by Weinberg. This was an opportunity for Britten’s music to be the light-hearted item on a program. It introduces a theme and proceeds through ten variations such as March, Wiener Walzer, Moto perpetuo. Thoroughly interesting and enjoyable, it was a tribute by Britten to the gifts of his teacher as he demonstrates his own. Shostakovich’s Violin Sonata seems to have been composed by the composer reaching into his chest and pulling on the arteries of his heart. It was composed for David Oistrakh. Mr. Kremer’s performance contained all the emotion of the music as well as exquisite technical achievement. The piece was composed in 1968, the year that the USSR sent tanks into the Prague Spring. Shostakovich knew well the surprise that could come at night like the crack of the bow on the cello. He knew the horror that cartoon ghouls, unaware of being self-satires, could wreak. He knew there was a mysterious beauty that sounds like stars coming out at night. The strings pluck; the terror is understated. The music sighs and wonders. It was a great piece by a great composer played with great soul. Shostakovich considered Weinberg a great composer and friend; Weinberg said that meeting Shostakovich, “was as if I had been born anew.” The Concertino, written in 1948, was not performed in that time. It has a sound of evanescence which wafts a lovely, but sometimes painful sensibility. The final movement sounds a warning in the midst of a waltz. Weinberg’s Symphony #10 expanded our introduction to this complex composer. It opens with a festive, delicate sound. There is interplay between the violins and deeper strings, a conversation trading dancing rhythms. The music evokes a feeling of anxiety and then replaces it with gliding lyricism. One hopes to hear more of this composer. POST SCRIPT: Weinberg’s 10th Symphony was added to the program to replace Shostakovich’s Anti-Formalist Gallery which was to be sung in Russian by Alexei Mochalov. Mr. Mochalov’s wife died suddenly, and he could not appear. The satirical, musical play, printed in the program, reflects Shostakovich’s bitter awareness of the bureaucrats allowed to play fatal games with the lives of artists and their work. The Musical Functionaries: “Yes, yes, yes, yes,/Inside, inside,/To labor camps we’ll send them all!” It was fair to choose another Weinberg piece for fill in for Shostakovich. Weinberg’s life had all too many interactions with the hounds of the state. Born in Poland, he was chosen to study piano in the US. When World War II broke out, getting to the US was not easy. He went to the USSR. His father-in-law was murdered by Stalin the year the Concertino was written. Weinberg was arrested, in 1953, charged with “Jewish bourgeois nationalism.” This was the year that Stalin murdered doctors allegedly for plotting against his state. Weinberg’s one bit of luck: he was imprisoned and would have been killed if it had not been for Shostakovich’s intervention. The composer had that good fortune that he was to be killed at a time when Shostakovich was in the thugs’ good graces.  KremBaltica_583x336For such an extraordinary soloist, Mr. Kremer has done much to widen the world of music. In addition to Kremerata, he has founded and directed music festivals in Lockenhaus, Austria, Gstaad and Basel, Switzerland, and Munich. Look for his recordings: The Berlin Recital with Martha Argerich, EMI; Mozart’s Violin Concertos with the Kremerata, on Nonesuch.KremerataB

Barantschik, Zukerman, Kremer: Great Violinists in San Francisco, Part I

BandoneonPart I: Music lovers in San Francisco had a festival of great violinists from late January to Groundhog’s Day. It was easy to forget the inevitable post-holiday let down when in the presence of artistry that lifted the spirit while demanding an open heart and mind. Alexander Barantschik, San Francisco Symphony’s Concertmaster, was leader and soloist on Jan. 22, 2014, when members of the SFSymphony joined him in works by Mozart, Mendelssohn, Britten, and Piazzola. With the exception of Piazzola’s works, each composer wrote the selections when very young. Very young: Mozart was 16 when he wrote Divertimento in F maj.; Mendelssohn was 13 when he wrote Concerto in D min. for Violin and String Orchestra; Britten was 10-13 when he wrote the themes, songs, and tunes which he made into Simple Symphony when he was 20. The words charming, delightful, beautiful are the ones which instantly come to mind for the Mozart Divertimento. The second movement Andante has a delicious lyrical, nearly seductive style. It ends with a Rondo which is bright and exciting. The players did so well capturing the light-on-water brilliance. Barantschik’s playing in the Mendelssohn Concerto had all the virtuosic abilities the piece deserves. He is an appropriate inheritor of the piece which was written for Eduard Rietz, the violinist to whom Mendelssohn dedicated important works and who was Concertmaster when Mendelssohn revived Bach’s Saint Matthew Passion. Before joining the SFS, Barantschik served as concertmaster of the London Symphony Orchestra. San Franciscans are fortunate to hear his performances with the orchestra and in chamber performances. The Concerto is full of energy and musical invention. Mendelssohn demonstrates his ability to see the many different dimensions in which the music can be arranged, altering the order of phrases and finding new combinations for them. Never more devoted to chess playing than to music making, the young genius gives us music that thrills the audience. Britten’s Simple Symphony was a surprise to audience members who know Britten only through “heavy” music like operas Turn of the Screw. This was fun and tuneful. The four movements, Boisterous Bourree, Playful Pizzicato, Sentimental Saraband, Frolicsome Finale, live up to their titles to create a frolicsome suite. The musicians played with relish. I first heard Piazzola’s music when a friend played tapes he had brought back from Argentina many years ago. It is tango, but it is more than “just tango,” and also shows how complex and rich tango can be. Barantschik was accompanied by soloist Seth Asarnow on bandoneon and the SFSymphony players. At the risk of robbing the music of its fascination, it’s worthwhile to assert that it is serious music. It is music that grew in a composer whose consciousness included jazz and Stravinsky (and Stravinsky was a composer whose consciousness had said hello to jazz as well). Tango is popular music which might prevent some music writers from taking it seriously; not this one. After all, the tango is famous, and infamous, for being about sex, a very mysterious and serious source of art.BarantschikFelixMpictures: top: a bandoneon; above, L to R: Alexander Barantschik, Felix Mendelssohn; below, Astor Piazzola, Benjamin Britten.PiazzolaDownloadedFile-3