Tag Archive: Benjamin Britten

Handling Handel: Mark Morris’ Acis and Galatea, plus more Handel, Monteverdi, BLO’s I Puritani, the Met’s Cenerentola, and other adventures in opera-land

Portrait of George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner.

The Mark Morris Dance Group was back in Boston with the East Coast premiere of a major new work, Handel’s ravishing pastoral opera Acis and Galatea, under the aegis of the Celebrity Series of Boston, one of the co-commissioners. I loved it. Or to put it more accurately, I’m in love with it, and saw three of its four performances at the Shubert Theatre. Morris has now staged several complete operas and one Handel oratorio. At least two of these are generally regarded as his masterpieces: Purcell’s one-act opera, Dido and Aeneas (1989), in which all the singers are offstage and the dancers play the main characters; and Handel’s L’Allegro,il Penseroso ed il Moderato (1988), in which the singers are also offstage, and there are no charactersBut in Rameau’s delectable Platée (1997) and in Morris’s productions of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice (Handel and Haydn Society, 1996; the Metropolitan Opera, 2007), singers played the leading roles and appeared on stage along with the dancers.

Literally operatic: Two Boys at the Met plus opera in Boston

A Scene from Nico Muhly's Two Boys at the Metropolitan Opera.

A few minutes after the final curtain of Two Boys descended, after composer Nico Muhly received his ovation and joined the cast for their curtain calls, I think I figured out the true nature of this opera. This was the first main stage Metropolitan Opera production of the estimable Met/Lincoln Center Theater New Works program. Two Boys has been in the works for over five years, and had its world premiere at the English National Opera in 2011. The Met has given it serious encouragement and high-end attention. The opera has a libretto—based on an actual crime in 2001, in Manchester, England—by playwright Craig Lucas, a Pulitzer and Tony finalist; was directed by Tony Award-winning Bartlett Sher (South Pacific); and conducted by David Robertson, music- director designate of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, a musician especially admired for his performances of contemporary music. The intricate production design by Michael Yeargan, which includes a gloomy police office with overhead fluorescent lights, and projections of computer screens and internet chat rooms (by 59 Productions), is certainly not cheap looking (as was Yeargan’s set for one of the Met’s few other premiere’s in recent decades, John Harbison’s The Great Gatsby). Care and money had clearly gone into this production.

Looking Back and Looking Forward: Takács String Quartet in Lincoln Center’s Great Performers Series

The Takács Quartet. Photo by Richard Houghton.

Lincoln Center: October 25 2012 Haydn – String Quartet Op. 76 No. 5 Britten – String Quartet No. 2 Shostakovich – Piano Quintet Marc-André Hamelin – piano The Takács Quartet Edward Dusinberre – violin Károly Schranz – violin Geraldine Walther…
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Peter Grimes, Prom 55, London 2012

Noble and/or savage. In this Olympic summer the Proms have been lavish with opera productions, and I suppose the sheer Englishness of Peter Grimes made it an automatic choice. The production, done in concert without sets, came from the English National Opera with most of the original cast intact – it was first staged in 2009 – and was conducted for beauty and precision by the ENO’s music director, Edward Gardner. I’m getting the bare bones out of the way because it’s hard to revisit Britten’s seminal opera – the one that ratified his status as the greatest British composer since Henry Purcell – without feeling queasy.

The Takács Quartet Visits Sydney

I’ve written many times about musicians’ giving spiels before they play and how intrusive this can be on the music by denying that important transition from the audience’s excited chatter as they find their seats, to the musicians’ walking on, to the silence before the first note. These spiels are very different from the pre-concert talks which are common now and elective, take place well before the actual concert, and can be informative. Here was a more egregious example — first violin Edward Dusinberre gave an entire short lecture before the Janáček and Britten quartets, complete with short musical excerpts just before they hoed into the actual piece. Then Gordon Kerry himself was brought on to talk about his piece just before they played it. I think even a “modern audience” can take its music straight and have a fighting chance of understanding it. The lecturing seemed to throw them off, the words over-specifying and materializing the music, being too heavily prosaic for the music to bear, though perhaps jet-lag and fatigue from touring, or just a bad day contributed, but it was disappointing that the music of this usually very fine group sounded so flat.

Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein Collaborate with the Sydney Symphony — Tchaikovsky, Prokofiev and Beethoven

Inviting guest musicians Osmo Vänskä and Alisa Weilerstein to the Sydney Symphony makes an artistic match the muses approved of, not to mention the heavens. They only came for three performances in Sydney, and how they found time to rehearse this dense program thoroughly is a mystery to me, though a shared musical spirit and understanding seemed to be on their side in this performance. It was a rare conjunction of various uncontrollable elements. The program too is very interesting. The Sydney Symphony has found a ‘new’ Tchaikovsky piece, apparently never having played Voyevoda before, and has not played the Prokofiev sinfonia concertante for 40 years. Beethoven is always interesting (at the very least), but here we have a unique interpreter of his symphonies in Vänskä, who seemed even to find in Beethoven hitherto unheard connections to Prokofiev.

Mozart and Britten by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra

I have heard it lamented “O, if only Mozart had written 25 violin concertos in the 1780’s and only 5 piano concertos.” Notwithstanding the alternate universe where Mozart lived to 89 and wrote many of each, the D major concerto for piano and violin, as Philip Wilby reconstructed it in 1985, goes some way to consoling the lamenting violinist. Mozart began composing the fragment (which W. J. Turner in his 20th century biography, disappointed not to have more of it, called a “remarkably fine work”) sometime during his month-long stay in Mannheim in 1778 on the way back to Salzburg from Paris. Whereas Mozart wrote the 5 violin concertos for himself to play, this concerto he intended for another violinist, Ignatz Franzl, probably intending to perform the piano part himself; he wrote to his father just before leaving Paris that he wanted to give up playing the violin. This was at a weighty juncture, or at least a phase change, in Mozart’s life often implicitly or explicitly considered the fulcrum between “early Mozart” and “late Mozart.” Indeed the double concerto shows some of the Mozartish profundity and ecstasy of the later piano concertos while still having much of the humor, play and levity of the young Mozart.

Music@Menlo, The English Voice: Britten, Walton, and Elgar

The saving grace of “music for children,” I find, is that it is never really composed for children, but about them — or more usually about the part of us which traffics in irony, yet yearns to remain simple and pure. There are few lullabies effective for sleep which would long engage an adult mind, so I know Sasha Cooke will forgive me for saying that her stunningly effective rendition of Britten’s Charm of Lullabies last Tuesday at Music at Menlo, outwitted Morpheus.

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