MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

Summer Enchantment: A Soirée in Soral

Soral Soirée-1

As we in the USA continue to languish with no serious leadership from the federal government, no rational plan to combat the coronavirus pandemic and allow for a safe return to social activity, other countries are getting their feet back on the ground, however tentatively. Performances are slowly returning in Europe, an encouraging sign that we can still only admire from afar.

Recently my good friend Thaddeus Burns presented an open-air concert to a small group of guests at his home in Soral, just outside Geneva. The wonderful conductor John Fiore, who is based in Geneva and frequently appears at such venues as the Semperoper in Dresden and the Deutsche Oper Berlin, led a group of colleagues who call themselves ensemble d-cadences — comprising members of the l’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande. The lineup included the pianist Todd Camburn, a renowned lieder accompanist and vocal coach, and the elegant young soprano Clémence Tilquin.

Fiore put together a tasteful program of Mozart, Ravel, and Dukas (for which I contributed some comments — see below). A group of guests sat outdoors as the ensemble played on the patio. I’ve also embedded a few short excerpts into the program listing to share a little taste of this enchanting early evening of music and camaraderie.

Further to the east in Switzerland, Lucerne Festival had just opened its “Short Festival” — the replacement of its usual month-long festival, this time for ten days and in accordance with the country’s safety regulations. “Life is live” as Lucerne put it — and so is music as we most want to experience it.

Grand Concert de Déconfinement et Soutien
John Fiore conductor
Todd Camburn piano
Clémence Tilquin soprano

Wolfgang Amadé Mozart  (1756-91)
Overture to Der Schauspieldirektor (1786)

Second and Third movements from the Piano Concerto in C major, K. 467 (1785)
Todd Camburn

“Come Scoglio” from Così fan tutte, K. 588 (1789-90)         
Clémence Tilquin

“Ch’io mi scordi di te? – Non temer, amato bene,” K. 505 (1786)     
Clémence Tilquin and Todd Camburn

Encore: “Dove sono” from Le nozze di Figaro, K. 492

All Mozart arrangements for small orchestra by John Fiore          


Maurice Ravel  (1875-1937)
Ma mère l’Oye (1910)

Arranged for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington

Paul Dukas     (1865-1935)
L’âprenti sorcier (1897)
Arranged for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington

image1 (2)

left to right: Todd Camburn, John Fiore, Clémence Tilquin

Opera and Concerto: Mozart Finds Independence in Vienna

On the morning of 16 March 1781, Wolfgang Amadé Mozart arrived in Vienna for what was officially intended as a three-month stay. He had traveled to the capital at the request of Prince-Archbishop Hieronymus Colloredo, the ruler of Salzburg (as well as his employer), whose sizable entourage—including three musicians—he joined and with whom he was expected to return when the sojourn drew to a close.

Yet the 25-year-old Mozart was abuzz with plans of his own. Already on the evening of his arrival, despite having been on the road during the previous night, he performed for a gathering of prominent aristocrats. Wolfgang confided to his father that he found Vienna a “magnificent place—and for my métier the best place in the world.”

His ambitions precipitated a dramatic rupture with Colloredo, whose demeaning treatment brought the composer’s long-simmering resentment to a boil. Mozart was dismissed from the staff of the powerful man he derisively called “the arch-booby” and stayed in Vienna for the remaining decade of his all-too-short life.

One factor that made the Habsburg capital so attractive was the prospect that here Mozart could devote himself increasingly to opera. The confidence that enabled him to make this decisive leap into a freelance career had been bolstered by his recent experience in Munich with Idomeneo, a major creative breakthrough. Its unprecedented perspective on the moribund opera seria (“serious opera”) tradition already marked a kind of declaration of independence for the composer.

Within months of determining to stay in Vienna, Mozart was immersed in his comic opera Die Entführung aus dem Serail. It premiered in the summer of 1782 and scored a great success, eventually becoming his most popular work for the stage during his own lifetime. Abduction belongs to the genre of German Singspiel, a hybrid of music and spoken text that Emperor Joseph II had attempted to foster, though the style of Italian comic opera (opera buffa)—presided over by Antonio Salieri—won pride of place at the imperial court.

Der Schauspieldirektor (“The Impresario”) is Mozart’s only other contribution to the Singspiel genre before The Magic Flute from his final year. The composer described it as “a comedy with music,” and the part for which he was responsible—an overture, a pair of arias, a trio, and a sparkling quartet-finale—has long since been enjoyed for its own sake, detached from the brief comic play about jealous, rivaling prima donnas who audition for a struggling company.

Emperor Joseph asked Mozart to write the piece as part of the entertainment accompanying a private state visit at his palace in Schönbrunn. There it was first presented to the guests in a kind of competition with another one-act comic opera in Italian by Salieri (Prima la musica e poi le parole). Gottlieb Stephanie, who happened to be an actual impresario and had furnished the composer with the libretto for Abduction, penned the text.

Mozart dashed this music off in just two weeks early in 1786 while still working on Le nozze di Figaro, his brilliant reinvention of the opera buffa genre (to be premiered in the spring). The satirical framework of Der Schauspieldirektor is undeniably lightweight, but the score benefits from the inimitable panache and superb craft that Mozart had been perfecting in his recent Viennese compositions—above all, in the soon-to-be-unveiled Figaro. The effervescent Overture by itself comprises a virtual comedy-within-the-comedy, using mirthful contrasts to set the stage for the ensuing story of vainglorious artists who in the end find harmony.

Along with allowing him to pursue his passion for opera, Vienna represented what Mozart hailed as “the land of the clavier.” The keyboard became his alter ego. It kept him in the public eye through performances that—in addition to income from private lessons—provided a significant source of income once he chose the risky path of the freelance artist. Mozart developed the piano concerto into a remarkable synthesis combining artistic and popular appeal.

The Viennese piano concertos might also be seen as forming a bridge between Mozart’s advanced instrumental composition and his operas—a kind of laboratory where he experimented with ideas that animate his music for the stage. In his hands, the piano concerto became nothing less than a signature genre: Mozart used it to introduce his latest musical thoughts while simultaneously showcasing his personality as a performer. At the same time, he took pride in the commercial appeal of this music.

Mozart presented the K. 467 Concerto in C major in March 1785. The handbill advertising the concert drew attention to a special enhancement mechanism: “an especial large forte piano pedale will be used by him for improvising.” The Mozart expert Neal Zaslaw describes this as a custom-built, “legless fortepiano which lay on the floor underneath his regular piano… [and] was played by means of a pedalboard with the feet, as an organ is played … to reinforce the low notes.”

Mozart conceived the C major Concerto as a work of impressive architectural scope, with a symphonic richness of detail. The slow movement is all the more effective as a contrast to the bright, festive atmosphere of the movements surrounding it (we hear the finale following this Andante). Veiled strings and poignant harmonies intensify the aura of intimacy. Here, especially, we can imagine the soloist as the protagonist of a voiceless opera, entrusted with an aria that unspools at extravagant length.

Mozart’s biographer Maynard Solomon writes of “an entire movement of unrelieved, time-stopping beauty, blending chromatic pathos and measured tranquility … for something just short of eternity.” Mozart brings us back to earth with a scintillating finale built around a smile-inducing theme. The genial interplay between orchestra and piano reenacts the spell Mozart knew how to cast as a celebrity pianist in Vienna.

By 1790, when Così fan tutte was premiered, changes in the taste of the fickle Viennese public as well as a devastating economic fallout resulted in hard times for Mozart. The demand for new piano concertos had all but disappeared. The genesis of Così, his third and final collaboration with the librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, remains mostly obscure. As court librettist until his abrupt dismissal in 1791, Da Ponte had collaborated with Salieri, who even had dibs on his libretto for Così but abandoned it after composing two trios.

Two years had passed since Mozart’s most recent commission for the stage, and he returned with a vengeance. Set in Naples, Così fan tutte stands apart even within the great Da Ponte trilogy of operas—arguably, it represents his most sophisticated achievement in music theater. This erotic comedy revolves around the wager two male friends take up to prove the existence of faithful love. They put this to the test by disguising themselves and attempting to seduce each other’s fiancées—a project that, to their mutual chagrin, proves all too successful. The opera’s sextet of characters interlock and recombine with the provocative, rueful geometry of a play by Tom Stoppard.

The more serious and steadfast of the two women, Fiordiligi is given a pair of character-defining arias (like the Contessa in Figaro). In the first of these, Come scoglio (“Like a rock”), she articulates her determination to remain faithful through Mozart’s intensely virtuosic vocal line, which calls for dramatic leaps over a treacherously wide range. So dramatic, indeed, that they parody the stock poses of serious opera. (Mozart was doubtless also indulging in some fun at the expense of Salieri’s mistress Adriana Ferrarese, who created the role of Fiordiligi.)

In March 1786, a month after the premiere of Der Schauspieldirektor, Mozart composed another aria on the topic of unwavering love, which was interpolated into a private revival in Vienna of Idomeneo. He reworked this material at the end of the year to fashion a stand-alone scena, the recitative and aria Ch’io mi scordi di te? – Non temer, amato bene (“Will I forget you? … Fear not, beloved”). The occasion was an upcoming farewell concert by the English soprano Nancy Storace. She had recently created the role of Susanna at the premiere in May of Le nozze di Figaro and was now leaving Vienna behind. Whether Storace and Mozart themselves became lovers is purely speculative, but the composer took pains to inscribe his personality into this spacious concert aria by creating a prominent part for solo piano, which offers an animated accompaniment to the beautifully ornamented vocal line.      

“The Poetry of Childhood”: Music by Ravel and Dukas

“Mozart is absolute beauty, perfect purity,” Maurice Ravel once remarked about his favorite composer. He was proclaiming an essential aspect of his own credo: the quest for a perfectly crafted beauty, cherished for its own sake, lies at the heart of the French composer’s aesthetic. Ravel attributed a kind of pleasure principle to his idol: “What Mozart created for the enjoyment of the ear is perfect.” (Beethoven, in contrast, he cited as a misstep in the direction of subjectivity—the example of a composer who “overacts, dramatizes, and glorifies himself, thereby failing to achieve his goal.”)

Ravel associated such perfectionism with the innocence of childhood fantasy. As an adult, he felt a strong kinship with children and consciously tapped into fantasies of childhood as a source of musical poetry. Ma mère l’Oye (“Tales of Mother Goose”) in fact originated as a project intended specifically for children. The music alludes to classic fairy-tales as recounted Charles Perrault in his anthology of 1697 and by two other French authors. “It was my intention to awaken the poetry of childhood in these pieces,” the composer remarked, “and this naturally led me to simplify my style and to thin out my writing.”

Ravel befriended Ida and Cipa Godebski, a Polish couple whose salons attracted a striking array of Parisian artists. He also became close to their two children and between 1908 and 1910 wrote a sequence of five pieces for piano four-hands for them as a private gift—though it was not the Godebski children but two young girls who have the Paris premiere in 1910.

Ma mère l’Oye is best known in its later (1911) orchestral incarnation, which Ravel also expanded into a ballet. But the arrangement of the original for chamber orchestra by Iain Farrington that we hear suggests the prismatic nuance of the orchestrated version and at the same time conveys the forthright intimacy of the piano writing that was its starting point.

The solemn processional of the opening pavane of Sleeping Beauty ushers us, along with the stricken princess, into a dreamlike state. We sense the ambivalence of Ravel’s summoning of childhood: a past recaptured, nostalgically, by the knowing adult’s memory. Tom Thumb (Petit Poucet) tells of a poor woodcutter’s son who tries to plan a way out of the woods by dropping breadcrumbs, only to discover that birds have eaten them.

In Laideronnette, the Empress of the Pagodas, a princess has been made the ugliest woman in the world by a witch’s spell but finds herself transported into a magical kingdom where her miniature subjects, robed in gems, serenade her with an orchestra whose instruments are made of the shells of walnuts and almonds.
Ravel traces the unlikely duet of Beauty and the Beast as a Satie-like waltz that leads to another transformation—and a love that blossoms. Prince Charming himself arrives to awaken Sleeping Beauty in the final number, and the forest becomes an enchanted garden—the apotheosis of imaginative fantasy.

Although not written specifically for children, L’apprenti sorcier (“The Sorcerer’s Apprentice”) has become identified de facto with one of the best-loved classics for young ears thanks to the legacy of Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia and its spinoffs. The cartoon animation of Paul Dukas’s symphonic poem from 1897 even served as the original prototype for the Fantasia idea. Its popularity has eclipsed the rest of the slender catalogue of works that the highly self-critical Dukas allowed to be published.

The source material for this “symphonic scherzo” was itself a version of an archetypal tale of magic power gone awry that similarly finds expression, say, in the legend of the golem. Dukas was inspired by the narrative Goethe etches with point and humor in his ballad Der Zauberlehrling, published in 1797. The zombie-like broom that keeps on fetching water because the young apprentice has not learned the spell to make it stop—it only redoubles its efforts after he splits it with an axe—has countless contemporary counterparts, as anyone frustrated by an errant “Alexa” or Roomba can attest.

The success of Dukas’s scherzo is closely allied to his orchestral wizardry, which even inspired a young Stravinsky. Still, Iain Farrington’s arrangement manages to channel the score’s wit and thrilling energy—at times echoing the frenzy of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries. After an “establishing shot” that conjures the sorcerer’s milieu with eerie harmonies, Dukas develops his engaging musical narrative from a simple but obstinate, rhythmically captivating motif.
Notes on the Program by Thomas May (c)2020

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