MEMETERIA by Thomas May

Music & the Arts

The Devil Gets the Best Tunes

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Laurence Cummings (Photo by Robert Workman)

Here’s a piece I wrote for this month’s Juilliard Journal about Agrippina:

In one of Agrippina‘s pivotal scenes, the Emperor Claudius—at first presumed dead at sea by the scheming title character, only to be inconveniently rescued—crows in triumph over “conquered Britain” as a “new subject” for the Roman throne. That wouldn’t exactly be music to Brexit supporters—but, then, international migrants like George Frideric Handel (né Georg Friedrich Händel) would have had a harder time in a Europe of zealously policed borders.

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Filed under: Handel, Juilliard

Our Southern Neighbors: The Music of Latin America at Juilliard

Juilliard’s Focus! Festival for 2017 is devoted to the music of Latin America. Complete schedule and programming here.

Longtime Juilliard professor, conductor, and scholar Joel Sachs, who organized the entire festival, writes:

In the fall of 1992, I was offered the directorship of MoMA’s Summergarden, then a two-month long festival of new music.  Since the museum was preparing a major show of Latin American art, I was asked if my first Summergarden in 1993 might explore Latin American music. I assented, not realizing the challenge of finding the best music of a high swath of the world whose composers were hardly known. I quickly learned that the resources were huge.

As my knowledge of the music of Latin America has increased in the ensuing years, so has the number of composers. A Latin American Focus! festival seemed badly needed, even if six concerts could only scratch the surface. I wanted to emphasize composers still living in their home countries, but could not exclude the Latin America diaspora – composers who went abroad for education, opportunity, and in many cases, to escape the persecution and violence of the 20th century military regimes.

For months I have consulted extensively with composers in Latin America and elsewhere, assembling lists especially of young composer. The quantity of composers is truly staggering, and I have had to create limitations, favoring the living and those who remain in their home countries, while including some émigrés. Three of the pioneers are heard on the opening and closing programs.

Above all, I want to illustrate the stylistic diversity that makes to term ‘Latin American composer’ difficult to define other than geographically. The breadth of styles is truly amazing. The audience should not expect only ‘Latin-sounding’ folklore-based compositions. Since the primary aim of Juilliard’s Focus! festival is to give Juilliard students opportunities to extend their experience and skills, I have excluded purely electronic music, or music requiring indigenous instruments.

Filed under: Juilliard

Jonathan Dove’s Flight Lands at Juilliard

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Composer Jonathan Dove (Photo by Max Barstow)

My article on Jonathan Dove’s opera Flight for The Juilliard Journal:

Jonathan Dove’s three-act opera Flight has enjoyed phenomenal success since its 1998 premiere, as a commission by the Glyndebourne Festival. Opera Theatre of St. Louis staged the first U.S. production, in 2003, and to date Flight has been performed more than 85 times around the world in productions for mainstage opera companies and music schools alike. This month, Juilliard Opera opens its season with a new production of this comedy for 10 singers and large orchestra.

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Filed under: Juilliard, new opera

Eros and Beauty in Juilliard’s La Calisto

1602_calisto_20154016bfinal2Adam Charlap Hyman’s scenic design for Calisto

When was the last time you had a chance to see La Calisto, an opera from the early Baroque by Francesco Cavalli/aka Francesco Caletti-Bruni (1602-1676)?

Leave it to Stephen Stubbs and colleagues to make us realize how much we’ve been missing.

The Seattle-based conductor, lutenist, and early music expert was asked by Juilliard to lead their recent production of La Calisto, which just concluded a brief run of three performances in the school’s intimate Rosemary and Meredith Willson Theater (seating for a maximum of 100).

The result was far more than musical archeology. It also went beyond presenting a platform for talented young Juilliard artists. This was a fully engaging theatrical and musical experience,  one that proved — vividly and gracefully — the undiminished appeal of this material.

La Calisto dates from a fascinating period in early opera, when the newish art form was migrating from private courts into the public theaters of Venice in the mid-17th century. The surprise at Juilliard was how fresh and resonant the work can be when experienced in such a smart, tasteful production. The version of La Calisto presented had been adapted and arranged by Stubbs and director and choreographer Zack Winokur, featuring members of Juilliard Opera and Dance.

Cavalli’s opera of 1651, to a libretto by Giovanni Faustini, repurposes one of the mythic stories of love gone astray from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, fusing it with the (normally unrelated) legend of the handsome shepherd Endymion (Endimione).

What’s most remarkable about the conflation of sources here is the mingling of comic, even ribald, elements with pathos — and this is exactly what Winokur negotiated so effectively and with such winning imagination.

Well before Mozart and da Ponte would hit upon a similarly ambiguous admixture of seria and buffa tonalities in Don Giovanni, Cavalli and Faustini dramatize scenes of lofty emotion and longing side-by-side with the grotesque and sometimes crudely humorous spectacle of gods and demigods crazed by uncontrollable lust.

The latter isn’t limited to the randy half-goat Pan and his merry band of satyrs but extends to Jove himself. We encounter the chief of the gods overcome by desire at first sight of the virgin archer Calisto [one “el” in the Italian, rather than the English “Callisto”].

A follower of the moon goddess and huntress Diana and hence pledged to chastity, Calisto rejects his advances — the libretto includes a witty aside about the pesky side-effects of the free will that Jove has granted his creations — so the god resorts to a transgender disguise as Diana  to con his way. There’s a subtler layer of humor as well, as the hypocrisy of the gods is put on full display.

The opera is framed by a narrative of cosmic happenings, beginning — as if the day after Götterdämmerung — with a visit by Jove, accompanied by Mercury, to check up on an earth devastated by Apollo’s son Phaeton (who, having lost control of the reins of papa’s sun-chariot, had accidentally set the planet on fire).

At the end of the opera, Calisto undergoes an apotheosis into one of the constellations in the heavens. (In Ted Hughes’ rendering of Ovid’s Latin, Calisto — from the Greek for “most beautiful” — is “the Arcadian beauty.”)

But within that framework the opera explores the maddening effects of Eros on humans, demigods, and immortals alike. Jove’s frankly sexual passion for the innocent titular heroine sets in motion the main narrative.

Along with a subplot about Diana’s own weakness for the male counterpart of Calisto — the beautiful shepherd Endimione — it involves a comedy of mistaken identities, confused longing, sexual aggression and rejection — and of course the inevitable blowback from jilted lovers who channel their passion into a lust for vengeance.

At the opera’s midpoint, for example, Jove’s official spouse Juno descends from Olympus to discover hubby’s latest infidelity. Enraged — though Calisto has been the unwitting object of Jove’s desires — Juno cruelly transforms her rival into a bear; physically, though, Calisto retains her human awareness. (“Her lament/Was the roar of a bear – but her grief was human,” in Ted Hughes’s version of Ovid.) Calisto’s second transformation into a heavenly body is Jove’s way of repairing the damage he has caused.

“It seems to me that [librettist Faustini] set out to fashion a show that a modern promoter might describe as ‘a sexy romp’ — with all the tools that he and Cavalli had developed in their previous works. Sexuality and sensuality pervade every corner of the libretto,” notes Stephen Stubbs.

This was Stubbs’s first collaboration with Juilliard students, working a magic similar to what he has achieved in his stagings with University of Washington students (as in Handel’s Semele and Mozart’s The Magic Flute).

Indeed, Winokur’s staging and pacing underscored the playful erotics  — with an arch nod to contemporary sexual politics, but avoiding predictable camp. This was the polar opposite of “stand and sing” opera, of absurdly monumental gestures.

Stage movement was brisk and varied, at times wittily stylized into dance — and in marvelous sync with the lively tempi Stubbs elicited.

The conductor led mostly from the harpsichord, working with a small but colorful and dynamic ensemble comprising a pair of violins and a continuo mixture (lutes, bowed basses, etc.), plus a touch of percussion. The players were members of Juilliard415, the school’s period-instrument ensemble.

La Calisto unfolds place amid a pastoral scene that has just begun to be restored. The setting was elegantly visualized by the design team of Adam Charlap Hyman and Andre Herrero, with landscape painting by Pilar Almon and suggestive lighting by Marcus Doshi.

The energetic cast had been well prepared in the musical rhetoric of Cavalli’s idiom, which quickly (almost unnoticeably) morphs from recitative to arioso to aria or duet — the score features a wealth of duets — with terrific economy. Modest gestures were telling and made their mark.

Particularly outstanding were the Polish countertenor Jakub Józef Orliński as Endimione in the subplot of Diana’s own naughty dalliance. He did justice to what is probably the score’s single most gorgeous piece of music: his praise of Diana in “Lucidissima face.” (Endimione and Diana are the opera’s only couple to enjoy a case of requited love.)

Samantha Hankey amazed with a commanding stage presence and with her ability to persuasively differentiate Diana as lover from the severe Diana who is horrified by Calisto’s confession of love. As Calisto, Angela Vallone sang with unaffected beauty, suggesting the awakening of sensual awareness when her innocent character is duped by Jove in disguise.

Julia Wolcott used her large voice to imposing, regal effect as Juno, hinting at a mesmerizing fusion of an angry Donna Anna with the Queen of the Night. Her appearance — accompanied by a retinue of Furies — inspired the most memorable of Austin Scarlett’s delightful costumes, her towering dress an object of awe in itself.

Excellent contributions were made as well by Xiaomeng Zhang as the sex-starved Giove, while spot-on comic timing was provided by Michael St. Peter as his sidekick Mercurio, who eggs him on to pursue his desires.  Don Giovanni once again came to mind, with Giove as a precursor to the amoral seducer, the procuring messenger god his Leporello.

Shades of A Midsummer Night’s Dream likewise were evoked, though La Calisto concludes not with a smoothing out of the erotic misalliances, but rather with a sublime ensemble ode to the transformed heroine.

–(c)2016 Thomas May. All rights reserved.

Filed under: Baroque opera, Juilliard, review, Stephen Stubbs

Milton Babbitt’s World: A Centennial Celebration

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Tomorrow Juilliard launches it’s six-concert-long Focus! festival devoted to the work of Milton Babbitt and friends. Organized by Joel Sachs, it will present a fascinating cross-section of the much-misunderstood Babbitt’s creative interests and his wide-ranging circle of associates. I had the pleasure of editing the entire set of programs for this festival. Here’s the opening program, including Sachs’s introductory essay on Milton Babbitt:

This Focus! festival, the 32nd, revisits the world of the distinguished American composer Milton Babbitt in commemoration of his centennial. For me, the event is particularly special: I had known him since the 1970s and retain extremely fond memories of our endless chats. His great sense of humor, his remarkable ability to attend seemingly every new-music concert, his love of schmoozing, and his triple role as artist, intellectual, and Southern Gentleman were always a source of joy. His passion for old popular music often surprised the uninitiated. I shall never forget a Columbia Music Department Christmas party in the 1970s when he sat down at the piano and spun off cocktail music with incredible elegance.

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Filed under: Juilliard, Milton Babbitt

Philomel

An appetizer for Juilliard’s upcoming Focus! festival:
Milton Babbitt’s World: A Centennial Celebration

Filed under: Juilliard, modernism

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