Thursday, April 30, 2009

Stuart & Friends: Reaching Out

“Stuart & Friends” is the annual program in which Harrisburg Symphony conductor Stuart Malina becomes “Pianist for a Day” and plays chamber music with some of his colleagues from the orchestra. Part of the funding for the concert – given by Marilynn Kanenson in memory of her husband, former Harrisburg Symphony Board President Dr. William Kanenson – stipulates what is called “an educational outreach program.” With the concert scheduled for Tuesday evening at Whitaker Center, the first of two such programs took place at 10am that morning at Whitaker Center; the second took place the next morning with two performances at 9:00am and 9:45am at Hilltop Academy in Mechanicsburg.

When I got to Whitaker Center – late, after spending 20 minutes trying to find a parking garage that was not full – Stuart and flutist David DiGiacobbe had just played the Poulenc Flute Sonata that would open the concert. He was just beginning to talk about the Haydn Trio, joined by cellist Fiona Thompson, pointing out and then playing the melodies and mentioning how they worked together. Then they played through the whole movement.

One of Haydn’s little tricks is to pull the unexpected. When they came to these surprises where the music stops abruptly in mid-phrase before going off somewhere else, they each froze for the second or two before the music resumes, as if someone had suddenly changed the subject. Some kids in the audience giggled because it was unexpected or maybe they thought “uh oh, they lost their place” – and that was a response Haydn would have been happy with. Even if you were wearing 18th Century powdered wigs, you can’t always be so serious.

The 2nd Movement is a slow song – not really slow, as Stuart translated the tempo indication andantino, “not really slow” – and playing the theme first, they showed how Haydn wrote variations on this to create an on-going variety. And then they played the entire 2nd Movement.

The last movement is a “rondo” which he explained was like something round, a circular form that starts with the main theme that then, as he traces a circle in the air, goes to a contrasting theme that, by the time you reach the top of the circle again, comes back to the main theme again. You can go around this circle any number of times and if you gave each theme a letter, it would look like

A - B - A - C - A - D - A and so on...

And then at the end, to give it more oomph, Stuart explained how Haydn adds a coda or “tail-end” to build to a big finish. After playing a couple excerpts, they played the entire movement. In the end, then, the students got to hear the entire trio on the installment plan.

Sitting in the back of the Sunoco Performance Theater, I could see the whole front “orchestra” section was nearly full, very quiet and attentive and when it was over, very appreciative. Alice Anne Schwab, the symphony’s Director of Education, told me they were expecting about 250 students from the Nativity School, Harrisburg Sci-Tech across the street and the Cathedral School as well as about 90 members of the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra who were on the road that day and would be giving concerts of their own around Dauphin County before giving their Spring Concert that evening at the Forum (more of that in my next post).

Wednesday morning’s program at Hilltop Academy was a special program for special education classes, held in the “Living Skills Room” since they don’t really have a performance space, something they thought they’d probably not need. So the symphony was going to bring in a piano and have it tuned before the program so the students there could experience live music-making.

Programs like these may go under the radar for the average concert-goer in town but they’re a very important part of what the symphony – or any arts presenter – does. While musicians and actors and artists and dancers and writers can’t take up the slack when The Arts are cut from school budgets, every little bit helps. These programs go far beyond trying to sell more tickets: twenty or thirty years from now, these students may well be the future concert-goers and supporters, perhaps even the members of their communities’ arts organization.

Earlier this year, Stuart did a program of his own at the Highland Elementary School which you can read about on his blog, here.

And now, on to another facet of what the symphony does – the Harrisburg Symphony Youth Orchestra whose concert that evening was conducted by Ronald Schafer. I’ll be posting that shortly.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

The Post-Tosca Post

Judging from the audience response to this past weekend’s Tosca, we might be seeing more “concert opera” at the Forum.

Two hard-working rehearsals and a complete run-through at the Dress Rehearsal followed by a Saturday night and a Sunday afternoon performance – in all, 12½ hours of Tosca in 4 days – is a grueling challenge for the principal singers, something they would not normally do in an opera house. There, music rehearsals followed by rehearsals on the stage, a dress rehearsal and subsequent performances would usually be separated by “days off” to rest the vocal cords, easily music’s most delicate instrument. But a symphony’s schedule is not so luxurious – for the orchestra, a total of 14 hours – so I was amazed to realize that if anything Sunday’s performance was even more riveting and powerful than the night before.

When I chatted briefly with conductor Stuart Malina backstage at Sunday’s intermission, he was so excited about how well it was going, he wished we could be doing five more performances of it. I don’t think any of the singers heard him because I’m sure the principals would’ve fainted dead away...

But they clearly enjoyed performing here and it was great to hear them blend in with singers from our own community – bass Damian Savarino as Angelotti (who only gets to sing in the first act), tenor Christyan Seay as Scarpia’s henchman Spoletta, and bass Richard Zuch who came up from the Philadelphia area to sing the comic role of the Sacristan in the 1st Act, plus the two smaller parts of a policeman in Act 2 and the jailer in Act 3. Brendan McAlester was the boy soprano who made a brief appearance as a passing shephard boy during the atmospheric prelude to Act 3.

Opera is full of “smaller roles,” sometimes overlooked compared to the “stars.” The three principals – Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia – get all the big scenes, the arias and duets and the most memorable tunes. They have the meatiest roles, the most defined characters and the greatest work to do.

After Saturday night’s performance, Stuart did the post-concert “talk-back session” by himself, opting to give the singers as much chance as possible to rest up for the next performance, 17 hours later. The three principals joined him for the “talk-back” on Sunday and I was amazed to find out, after such a thrilling performance, that Othalie Graham woke up that morning feeling so awful, she could hardly talk, much less sing – allergies, probably, brought on by the unseasonably summer-like weather. I would never have guessed from the performance.

But, as she explained, you do what you’re supposed to do: she knew she would sing the performance regardless – after all, there’s no understudy in the wings to go on in her place – just something a trained singer knows how to do. To the question about ever being concerned her emotions in presenting her character would get in the way of her vocal control, she said as a singer, it’s your job so you show up, sing the notes and keep certain things separate from the voice production. As a woman, portraying a character like Tosca is a dramatic challenge, suffering a range of emotions from listening to her lover being tortured to her reactions to Scarpia’s smarmy advances, all in the space of a few minutes. It would be very easy to get carried away and put the voice at risk by getting too involved.

Grant Youngblood, our Scarpia, one of the most evil villains in opera (as one fan put it afterward, “you were so awful, you were wonderful”), agreed you have to keep separate the idea of what you’re singing from how you’re singing it, keeping in mind how you have to move on stage, coordinate action with the music, focus on hundreds of details at the same time and then try to make it all seem a natural extension of the vocal demands. In that sense, a concert performance might have different challenges but would be no less demanding.

It’s always fascinating to hear how musicians first become interested in music before they developed the talent that separates them from the rest of us who may have had similar dreams and experiences but never realized them. While none of them really grew up dreaming of becoming an opera singer, except maybe Stuart who would come home from school and listen repeatedly to his recording of Puccini’s La Boheme (his father called out from the audience, “Act III!”). Until they were in college and switched their majors to music to the initial disappointment of their fathers, they all had some exposure to music at an earlier age.

Othalie said her father, who was Jamaican, loved listening to operas by Wagner and Richard Strauss even though he had no idea what they were singing about: he just loved this music. Dinyar Vania said he and his brother and sister all took music lessons – he was a percussionist – so there was lots of music in the house, lots of concerts to go to. But his parents loved Broadway musicals and when they would go into New York City to hear the latest shows, they would bring back programs and recordings and soon he was singing along with the records. (Here, by the way, is Dinyar singing a duet from Act IV of La Boheme.)

Grant joined the choir in college and thought it would be fun to try out for the chorus in a production of the opera department’s La Boheme. He had such a great time – walking around in this costume, creating a character in the background of all this great music – that another singer urged him to try out for the Opera Workshop himself. He said “But I’m not a trained singer.” She replied, as he mimicked her Southern twang, “Well, honey, neither am I.”

For Stuart, growing up as a pianist who loved opera and musical theater, his first conducting experiences in school were with Broadway productions and Gilbert & Sullivan. In fact, he didn’t really start focusing on symphonic conducting until graduate school. Given his early passion for La Boheme, it was no surprise he wanted to schedule it shortly after he arrived in Harrisburg in 2000, but it had just been done in concert the year before. He loves Tosca as well and decided he was going to do it because he wanted to do it, not for any other more or less practical reason.

He had met Dinyar and Grant when he conducted a gala performance with Opera Delaware a few years ago. He brought them both to Harrisburg for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th. When he was conducting Porgy & Bess in Delaware, Othalie auditioned for Bess but they thought she had “too big a voice” for the part, so she wasn’t chosen (she has sung power-house roles like Turandot and Elektra around the world but is frustrated by being typecast – I was amused she kept asking me, during rehearsals, if I could hear her out in the hall when even at half-voice she could still cut through the orchestra with this amazing sound!). However, Stuart knew immediately this was a voice he wanted to follow and a singer he wanted to work with. So they became kind of a “dream team” cast for a Tosca Project that finally came to fruition this past weekend.

Helping to bring the story across to the audience was the use of the “super-titles” which Tim Dixon operated through a lap-top’s Power Point presentation and a projector up in the Forum’s Promenade. Knowing the plot is one thing, but knowing the smaller details of the singers’ “conversation” is something else. It was good to hear the audience chuckle at certain lines – there being not much comedy to laugh at in an opera like this – even if sometimes they were reading the punch-line before the character actually sang it. It might take reworking a few of the slides for the text – there were already 669 slides for the whole opera – but it was a small price to pay just to have the audience respond to something few would understand from the original Italian. I’m thinking especially of the Act I spat when a jealous Tosca is telling the her lover, the painter Cavaradossi, to change the eyes of Mary Magdalene – a portrait of a beautiful blonde, blue-eyed woman he’d seen praying in the church but whom Tosca recognized as a potential rival – from blue to dark, like hers.

Though I’d seen or listened to Tosca many times in the years before “super-titles,” I never knew what happened to Angelotti, the escaped prisoner who, I’d assumed, spent the rest of the opera hiding in the well at Cavaradossi’s villa. But there’s a quick passing reference in one of Spoletta’s few lines that in fact Angelotti killed himself rather than surrender as the police were closing in on him (Scarpia tells them to hang his body from the scaffold anyway). After all these years, I finally found out what had happened to him.

While I’m not in the habit of writing reviews, I want to point out the fine – if brief – work the choirs did, especially in the Te Deum that concluded Act 1. Perhaps the hardest thing they had to do was sit there for most of the opera without being a visual distraction.

The impact of the whole performance, of course, is the sum of its parts – the music Puccini wrote, and how the conductor, singers, chorus and orchestra performed it. Stuart was delighted how quickly the orchestra picked up the “verismo” style with all of its suddenly changing tempos and stretched rhythms (see my earlier post on the rehearsals). There were lots of wonderful moments in the orchestra, but one of the most telling was the tenor’s aria, “E lucevan le stelle” in the final act where the principal clarinet “sings” the first verse of the aria. Janine Thomas’ playing was so achingly heartfelt, it became an extension of the singer. And in effect that is what everybody managed to create – all of these criss-crossing extensions that made for a single impassioned performance.

- Dr. Dick

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Tosca: The Poll

For those of you who attended the performances of Tosca with the Harrisburg Symphony last night or this afternoon, click on this “poll link” which will take you to Stuart Malina’s website. Let us know what you thought of the performance by answering a few simple questions and leaving whatever comments you’d like.

Later, I’ll get around to posting a “post-concert” post (is there another word to use here for either of these uses of the word ‘post’?).

While I know it’s going to be a beautiful day and there are lots of things to do – not to mention other concerts, now that “Spring Concert Season” has rolled around for choirs and colleges – if you haven’t gone to the Saturday night concert (IMHO, awesome!), I really really recommend the Sunday afternoon performance for you.

It starts at 3:00 and should be over by 5:15 – last night’s was over at 10:12 but I think a few people left once the 3rd Act started because they didn’t know how long it was going to be. Perhaps they were afraid the last act was going to be as long as the other two, but it’s only about half as long.

Dr. Timothy Dixon will be giving the pre-concert talk at 2:00 and I recommend this also especially if you don’t know the opera’s story or have never seen an opera before: he’ll give you a good plot-synopsis to set up the performance for you.

Dr. Dick

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Rehearsing "Tosca"

Sitting in on a rehearsal is a very different experience from attending the performance, a chance to find out what really goes on “behind-the-scenes” leading up to the concert.

This is, basically, where the work is done: the individual musicians get their individual parts and practice them at home – one 2nd violinist playing just the 2nd violin part – learning the notes and figuring out the technical challenges to work on before getting to the rehearsal. Then when everybody’s on stage and you hear your 2nd violin part in the context of what everybody else is doing, you realize how this needs to fit in there, that the conductor is doing something different than you expected there or that other changes and adaptations need to be made “for the greater good.”

For the Harrisburg Symphony’s Tosca this weekend, there were the usual four rehearsals. I arrived for the last hour of the first one as they were reading through Act II.

One of the issues here was simply the “operatic style” versus what symphonic musicians may be used to. Not that a Beethoven symphony or a Tchaikovsky concerto is so strictly metronomic in its tempos, but operas – especially Italian operas and particularly Puccini’s – require an amazing amount of flexibility to make it breathe naturally. There is a give-and-take with the singers to accommodate their phrasing, their breathing and their interpretation of the words.

So following the singers creates many subtle shifts in the tempo during a phrase or even within a single measure. This can be very difficult to get across to a musician who has several notes or rests that look no different than another measure.

If the orchestra doesn’t follow the conductor, there’s a mush in the accompaniment and the dramatic effect is ruined. If that trumpet player just counting along like a ticking clock doesn’t know one of those measures may be twice as long as the other measures, he could come in too early.

When it works, you don’t even notice there are 80 people breathing right along with the soprano like one person.

And it’s even harder to do without the singer there because there’s no one to follow – well, except for the conductor. So it wasn’t surprising to hear Stuart singing along - in Italian, not just scat-singing through the melody – to demonstrate for his players what’s going on.

Not surprisingly, there were problems.

They would stop, he would explain, they would pick up their pencils and dutifully mark their parts (put a fermata which means “hold it” over a note or rest, put hash marks where there’s a break, draw a squiggly line over a beat or two which indicates they need to stretch this beat, maybe even a pair of eye-glasses which we always used as a reminder to “watch” this one) then go back over and try it again.

What’s so wonderful about this orchestra is that if something is a problem, Stuart will stop, ask what he wants them to do to fix it and then when they try it again, it’s usually fine.

Meanwhile, Timothy Dixon who teaches and conducts at Messiah College, conducts the West Shore Symphony and who’s also giving the pre-concert talk an hour before each performance, was practicing running the super-titles. The set-up at the Promenade’s control board – a lap-top plugged into a projector with a music stand next to it for the score – projects this “closed captioning” onto a screen hanging over the orchestra. Line by line the translation appears just as the singers sing the line in Italian. It’s a coordinating nightmare, not magic, and so Tim is carefully following a heavily marked vocal score.

In all, there are 669 slides that have to be coordinated with specific moments of the music. With the computer, it’s not like anyone would be dropping the cue-cards, having Tosca murdering Scarpia (from the end of Act II) when the Sacristan is joking about setting the uneaten basket of food aside for himself (in the final scene of Act I).

*** ***** ******* ***** ***

Sometimes, you have to wing it: percussionists are used to this, creating solutions to problems with the barrage of instruments in their corner. Here, a pair of chimes for the cathedral’s church bells were too long for the stand. Solution: prop the stand up on something. In this case, old paint cans and a few chunks of wood.

In the break between rehearsals, the stage was empty except for the conductor, sitting hunched over his score with a pencil, conducting through various passages and trying out different sub-divisions, speaking of “flexibility,” transferring them from his score to the concertmaster’s part. This is one way the conductor communicates to the leader of the crucial first violin section. In subsequent moments during a rehearsal, the other string-playing principals – in the 2nd violin, viola, cello and bass sections – would watch the concertmaster and then relay that information to their own players, usually without needing to say a word. In this way, the communication goes from the composer to the conductor to a large portion of the orchestra all through the gestures a conductor makes with his baton.

At 6:15, the choir bursts through the Forum’s front door and for two minutes, chaos reigns in the hall before they disappear backstage into a rehearsal room. Amusingly, the chorus in character at the end of Act I hurries into place to perform the Te Deum with a similar burst of chaos. If I had known the opera better, I would have called out Scarpia’s line on his entrance, something about “such noise in a church, show some respect!”

The evening rehearsal began going over the choir’s involvements – not many but crucial: the Te Deum in Act I and in the 2nd Act, the off-stage cantata sung w/Tosca as the soloist. In the 3rd Act, the men have a brief walk-on part – well, run-on, actually – as soldiers who’ve discovered Scarpia’s been murdered and are coming to arrest Tosca as the murderer. In less than a minute, the opera is over.

Not knowing how it’s notated in the score, I thought this last-minute eruption sounded like a moan in which half of them forgot their pitches. Their shouting was more sung than shouted. As it turns out, Puccini writes only rhythms, no pitches at all. Without seeing the action, it was difficult to realize what this “moaning” was: was their a way for them to be less concerned about singing and more into yelling?

The next biggest challenge – after flexibility – is one of balance.

By this point of the rehearsal, as everybody’s getting used to everybody else, Stuart thought it best just to let the orchestra play out to get the feel for the theatrical effect. It’s easier then to reign them back in. Creating a dramatic sound is better at full volume rather than playing softer where it might sound pale, edgeless. Once you know how it goes, you can keep that intensity while still cutting the volume level back.

The challenge is to “Think Pit.” This is not a symphonic mind-set and it takes a while to get used to it, the orchestra on the same floor-level with the singers. Stuart would stop and say, “it’s marked forte [loud] but think mezzo-forte [half-as-loud].” In fact at various times he would just say “cut all your dynamic markings down by half.” Some instruments project more than others: a dozen brass players can obliterate a string section of forty. At the very end of Act I, Scarpia has his biggest moment yet but I couldn’t hear him because the chimes and the brass were too loud. Cut back by half, the balance was fine and the drama no less thrilling.

A complication, though, is the stamina of the typical opera singer. This is a very demanding opera for its three principals – soprano Othalie Graham as Tosca, tenor Dinyar Vania as Cavaradossi, and baritone Grant Youngblood as Scarpia. (In the photo at left, during a break, Stuart discusses some cues with Tosca and Scarpia.) In real life, singers would not be doing two big performances like this on successive days: the voice needs to rest as much as the body needs to.

Usually, the symphony’s dress rehearsal is held Saturday, starting late-morning. Even though all three of the principals have died by the opera’s final chord, you don’t want to kill them literally. So the dress rehearsal was changed to Friday night with an afternoon one added to replace Saturday’s. In order to save wear-and-tear on the vocal cords, the singers would “mark” their part – that is, not sing full voice, just singing softly, or take soaring lines down an octave. Forget trying to judge balance.

But things had gone well enough that Friday’s 7:30 dress rehearsal was what one always hopes a dress rehearsal would be: a run-through without stopping. In fact, there was only one point in the whole opera where Stuart stopped and started a passage over when musicians thought something was going to be faster than it should. Given all that I’d mentioned about flexibility earlier and the almost constant changes in tempo, often turning on a dime, this is amazing, given only three rehearsals.

There were times when the principals marked their parts but only when it became strenuous: Cavaradossi still hit his “Victory” High C in Act II as if he could go on for another fifteen seconds. Tosca sang her aria “Vissi d’arte” with all the passion she would have used if she were on the stage of the Met. Scarpia was never less than evil, twisting Tosca into betraying her lover before agreeing to give herself to him (to use a family-friendly metaphor) in exchange for saving her lover’s life.

The only thing missing, though – this being a concert performance, not a staged one – was the interaction between Tosca and Scarpia when she sees the knife on the table where the Chief of Police had been eating his dinner, then stabs him in the heart and he falls to the ground after an agonizing death scene. Instead, standing a few feet away from Tosca, Scarpia turns and slowly walks off-stage. But you wouldn’t see that if you were listening to the recording, either: it’s just one of those trade-offs. Opera is, after all, music and theater. The drama is certainly in the music and you can read the text to know what’s happening, but still...

By the very end, as the soldiers should be rushing onto the stage in pursuit of Tosca the murderer, the men now sounded genuinely agitated – perhaps the operatic equivalent of the old “rutabaga rutabaga” – less like lost souls trying to find their pitches. As Tosca goes berserk realizing her lover’s execution was real after all, not faked, they sounded more genuinely berserk themselves.

In rehearsal, you pace yourself, fit yourself into the part. In the performance, comfortable in your character like a well-worn shoe, you forget (to an extent) the details and focus on the drama.

And in a moment, Tosca realizes the villain has won after all, shouts “Scarpia! Before God!” and at 9:42 the opera’s over.

The rehearsal, however, isn’t.

After checking just a few spots, none of which would’ve detracted from a real performance, everyone left the stage at 10:00, the end of 10 hours of rehearsal in two days, heading back to their homes and hotel-rooms and ready for the performance Saturday night at 8:00 with a chance to do it all over again on Sunday afternoon at 3:00.

Small wonder Stuart’s Facebook status, posted after midnight, read “Stuart Malina’s body is sore.”

- Dr. Dick

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Stuart & Friends

Rehearsals for this weekend’s concert performance of Puccini’s Tosca begin this afternoon as this month’s “Symphony Camp” gets underway with members of the orchestra gathering for the first of four rehearsals, then two performances on Saturday and Sunday at the Forum.

Stuart Malina and four of those musicians have already been working on another program that takes place next Tuesday, just two days after the Sunday concert – the annual chamber music concert known as “Stuart and Friends.”

He’ll be joined by principal flutist David DiGiacobbe for the Flute Sonata by Francis Poulenc to open the program. Then they’ll be joined by principal cellist Fiona Thompson for one of the Trios for Flute, Cello and Piano by Franz Josef Haydn. After intermission, concertmaster Odin Rathnam and principal violist Julius Wirth will join Stuart and Fiona for the Piano Quartet by Antonín Dvořák.

Usually, a conductor is only ever seen from the back, conducting the orchestra, just waving a stick. Not just any stick, of course: one that controls every player in the orchestra (or so conductors like to think). Not very often do you get to hear a conductor performing as an instrumentalist, making music on their own account. Most often this is because conductors have become so focused on conducting, their “performing chops” fall by the wayside – too much to maintain in the face of a rigorous rehearsal and performance schedule with the orchestra.

A few conductors, though, like to play. It becomes an extension of what they do but it often becomes a reconnection for them with the very process of creating music in the first place.

In playing chamber music, the performer’s ability to fit into the single entity of the group is the key difference between playing a solo and playing in a small group, even with just one other musician. Given the number of players in an orchestra, it is the conductor who shapes the performance – the tempos, the phrasing, the overall interpretation. But with a few players, there’s more give-and-take in the preparation, more opportunities to try different approaches to the interpretation and a greater chance for some spontaneity (it is, after all, easier to get a handful of players to adapt suddenly than to get a hundred of them to follow an unexpected turn-of-phrase).

This “preparation,” if not always practicing – a conductor learning his scores, a pianist learning his part – is an on-going thing and often one with several strands moving simultaneously. Rare is the conductor who has the luxury of working on one program, performing it, then going on to the next one.

Stuart was telling me, last week as we were recording the Podcast for Tosca, how he has “Stuart and Friends” coming up a couple of days later, then a pops concert the first weekend in May, then the last of the Masterworks Concerts May 16th-17th which will include the world premiere of Jeremy Gill's Symphony No. 1, a work where you have no past history with it, you’ve never heard it before and you don’t have a recording of it to turn to for reference. In between all of that, on May 8th & 9th, he’ll be conducting Debussy, Shostakovich and Mozart with the Naples Philharmonic in Naples, Florida! Meanwhile, on the piano’s music rack was the conductor’s full score for Tosca and Poulenc’s Flute Sonata.

In the few days since then, he played through the Beethoven Romance and Sarasate’s Carmen Fantasy with Odin Rathnam which they’ll be performing on the May Concert. Last night was a rehearsal for the Dvořák Piano Quartet for Tuesday. And then this afternoon begins the rehearsals for Tosca.

It’s one way to keep conductors off the street.

- - - - -

TOSCA – Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 3pm at the Forum, sponsored by the Glatfelter Family Foundation .
STUART & FRIENDS - Tuesday at 7:30 at Whitaker Center, underwritten by Marilynn R. Kanenson in memory of Dr. William Kanenson.
The 3 DIVAS - Pops Concert, Saturday May 2nd at 8pm, Sunday May 3rd at 3pm at the Forum.

- Dr. Dick

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Your First Opera? Tosca's a Good Bet

Last week, Stuart Malina and I were talking about this weekend’s concert – a complete performance of Puccini’s opera, Tosca – and recording a ‘podcast’ which you can hear here. And I began thinking what it might be like for someone who has never seen (or heard) an opera before.

After all, opera (at least, a complete one) isn’t something you often find on a symphony orchestra’s program: the guest artists’ roster could include singers performing arias and of course it’s easy to do a whole concert program of orchestral excerpts – overtures, ballet music from an opera (like the music from Gounod’s setting of Faust which the Harrisburg Youth Symphony is performing on their own concert next week) or instrumental excerpts like “Dawn & Siegfried’s Rhine Journey” from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung, the Metropolitan Opera’s matinee radio broadcast this Saturday.

If this is the first time you’ve ever heard an opera live, you should know this weekend’s performance is a “concert performance” which means it’s not staged like you’d see it at an opera house. There won’t be any costumes or staging (not that the singers won’t interact with each other) but you will hear all the music. Ideally, an opera is a “total art experience,” without going all Wagnerian on you, and that means it’s (usually) a story told through words and music with singers in costume acting on a stage with sets and lighting. But many people hear recordings or a radio broadcast of an opera without ever seeing the singers, the costumes or the staging or, for that matter, understanding the words (since most operas are sung in foreign languages; even when sung in English, they're not always easily distinguishable in a performance).

Unfortunately, the Forum stage is not designed for theater. Putting the orchestra on stage precludes having space for the singers to move around and physically interact. While there used to be a pit, you still can’t nail anything down on the floor of the Forum stage. That means you won’t SEE the cathedral where the choir sings the Te Deum at the end of Act One, you won’t SEE Tosca murder Scarpia (photo, left), then place two candelabra on either side of his corpse at the end of Act Two and you won’t SEE the supposedly mock execution of Cavaradossi and then Tosca’s final leap off the roof of the prison that brings the opera to a close. But you will hear them.

More interestingly, you’ll be able to follow the words. In Italian this is called “the libretto” (or little book, basically the script) and this used to be something you’d either have to read before hand or try to figure out where you are while watching the opera (very distracting since you’re there to see an opera and not read a book).

Usually, you should probably read a “plot synopsis” of the story so you know what you’re going to be hearing, and maybe a little background material about the composer and the opera itself. You can do that by checking out my earlier post, by the way.

But a fairly recent technical innovation that makes this less of a “before-you-go” kind-of-thing is something called “Supertitles” which is like close-captioning on TV or “subtitles” that translates the dialogue in a foreign language film. They’re called “super” titles because they’re “above” the stage, not across the bottom (“sub”) of the screen. And while it may still seem distracting, you can look up to read the exact words that are being sung at that moment, and not have the singers very far from your field of vision.

The Metropolitan Opera has a different set-up which is fine for an opera house like the Met but impractical for the Forum. The Met’s “titles” are in a little screen across the back of the seat in front of you. That way it doesn’t distract from the visual aspect of the performance and if you find it annoying, you can turn it off. I found, for once, a benefit to wearing bifocals – I can read the Met’s titles through the lower, reading part of the lenses, then glance up to see the action on the stage without ever having to move my head.

The first time I had a chance to see something like this live, it was an opera I didn’t know anything about. I decided not to prepare myself. And it was in Russian. I’ll tell you now, Sergei Prokofiev’s Betrothal in a Monastery has become one of my favorite operas! I sat there entranced by the music and the production, but even found myself laughing at the jokes because the lines were so well timed, you were reading them as they were singing them. When I went back later to see operas I had seen before, even had recordings of, there were times I’m sitting there following along and realizing “Wow, so THAT’S what’s happening here!?”

Puccini is one of the most popular opera composers around and though no fuss was made over this being his 150th Anniversary Year (born in December, 1858), there is little to fear when facing one of his best known operas. If somebody who likes gorgeous melodies and lush harmonies would ask me for a recommendation, you can’t go wrong with La Boheme, Madame Butterfly or Tosca.

The emotions of the story are, in one sense, very realistic – well, if you watch television. Maybe not everybody experiences their emotions on quite the scale characters in opera do, but then usually everything is blown up to match the proportions of the staging and the music. Let’s face it, when people fall in love, have a fight, or break up, they don’t break into song. Once you understand that, it’s not difficult to imagine what’s going on behind the music: Tosca’s jealousy or Scarpia’s lecherous villainy.

Another factor that I should point out is one of time: symphonies or concertos move in segments called movements and may be a half-hour to, on the longer end of the scale, an hour or more (think Mahler). Opera can be the same way – instead of movements, it would be Acts, further subdivided into scenes, arias, duets, ensembles and so forth, all depending on how the story is being unfolded. Some one-act operas, complete, can be as long as one act of a three-act opera. It’s not uncommon for a whole opera to be 2-3 hours long (counting an intermission between each act) though Wagner takes the prize with operas that can be almost 6 hours from opening to final curtain. Then there’s the Ring of the Nibelung which takes four nights to perform, three of them clocking in between 5 and 6 hours each...

In my recording of Tosca, the 1st Act is 43 minutes long; the 2nd Act is 40 minutes and the 3rd Act is 26 minutes (sometimes in concert performances, the 2nd and 3rd Acts might be done together). So throw in an intermission or two, I figure Act I will end about 8:45 or so, and the final “curtain” could be around 10:15 – in other words, not much longer than a regular concert with an overture, a concerto and a large-scale symphony on it.

The performances are at the Forum, Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm. Timothy Dixon will be giving the pre-concert talks an hour before both performances.

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One quick story.

Puccini wrote in a style called “Verismo” which prefered stories with real-life people and emotions rather than historical tales involving kings and aristocrats, much less ancient gods, either. It is often considered “over the top,” as I mentioned, everything on a much grander scale when you add heart-throbbing music to the heart-throbbing story.

In Tosca, you have one of the great villains of opera, Scarpia (the opening chords are his chords). At the end of Act 1, he is lusting after Tosca, a famous opera singer of the day (a true diva), and he is plotting how he’s going to “have” her in his power while, in the background, the cathedral is celebrating a glorious “Te Deum” in praise of God. In Act 2, Scarpia has Tosca in his clutches metaphorically and would have her in them literally except she stabs him to death (the chords at the end of this act are his, too, but a chilling shadow of them). In Act 3, the presumed “mock” execution of Tosca’s lover, Cavaradossi, goes terribly wrong and he’s actually killed. When the police arrive to arrest Tosca for the murder of Scarpia, she throws herself off the prison’s roof to her death below. Okay?

So the actor Tony Randall, a great opera lover, was telling the story how one opera company had offered a special matinee performance of Cherubini’s opera Medea as a Family Performance with special discounts for children. Now, some people thought an opera about a mother who murders her children was hardly an appropriate choice for family entertainment and protested to the management. So the company substituted Tosca instead and everybody was fine with that!

- Dr. Dick

Friday, April 17, 2009

Puccini's Tosca, the PodCast

Earlier this week, Stuart Malina and I sat down in his living room to talk about the up-coming concert with the Harrisburg Symphony, a concert performance of Puccini’s opera, Tosca.

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You can hear our conversation here.
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The concerts are Saturday, April 25th at 8pm and Sunday, April 26th at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Come an hour before each performance for a Pre-Concert Talk by Timothy Dixon, professor of music at Messiah College and conductor of the West Shore Symphony.

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More people probably hear the music of an opera before seeing a whole theatrical production of an opera -- listening to a recording or a radio broadcast before getting a chance to see it live in an opera house.

Many people who have not had a chance to experience the magic of a full theatrical performance sometimes find the fact it's usually in a foreign language confusing or off-putting. With modern technology, now, you can follow the translation of the text, line-by-line, through the "supertitles" similar to what you might think of as "closed captioning." This performance with the Harrisburg Symphony will be sung in Italian and will feature the translation in supertitles across a screen suspended over the stage: they've done this before and it works very well in the Forum, if you're wondering about that.

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Tosca is one of the most popular operas around and though Stuart does a great job boiling the plot down for you in the podcast, here's a precis of the plot:

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Act 1 - An escaped political prisoner, Cesare Angelotti, seeks shelter in the church to hide. Mario Cavaradossi arrives to work on a painting of Mary Magdalene using the likeness of Cesare’s sister, Marchesa Attavantti. Mario soon finds Cesare outside the church and rushes him back in as Tosca approaches. Tosca questions Mario in fits of suspicion and jealousy after recognizing the inspiration behind Mario’s painting. Mario assures her of his fidelity and she leaves. Mario and Cesare hear a cannon signaling the discovery of Cesare, and escape to Mario’s villa. Baron Scarpia enters the church with Tosca following. Scarpia shows her a fan with the Attavantti crest. Tosca, distraught by what she thinks is Mario’s unfaithfulness, swears vengeance upon him. Scarpia orders his men to follow her home.

Act 2 - In the Farnese Palace Scarpia is eating dinner. Scarpia’s spy, unable to find Cesare, arrives with Mario instead. After a round of questioning, Mario doesn’t speak and is sent into an adjacent room just before Tosca arrives. When she hears Mario scream, she reveals to Scarpia the whereabouts of Cesare. Mario, angry at Tosca, is taken to prison. Spoletta returns announcing that Cesare killed himself. Scarpia makes a deal with Tosca that if she lets him have her, he’ll spare Mario’s life. She agrees. Scarpia writes a note ordering a mock execution for Mario. Once Spoletta leaves, Tosca lunges at Scarpia and stabs him with a knife. She takes the note from his hand and leaves.

Act 3 - At dawn, the jailer allows Mario to write a love letter to Tosca, but when Tosca arrives with good news, the two embrace. She tells him about the mock execution and their escape. The firing squad arrives and fires a shot at Mario and quickly leaves. Tosca tells Mario to hurry, but he doesn't move. She reaches down for him and finds that the bullets were real. Spoletta arrives and proclaims Tosca has murdered Mario. In turn, she hurls herself over the castle wall and plummets to her death.

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You can read more about the opera's background here which also includes some amusing anecdotes that seem to haunt this opera - like the bouncing soprano at the very end of the opera. Or the time Maria Callas' hair caught on fire.

Another favorite story happened during Act II when Tosca sings the famous aria, Vissi d'arte (I have lived for Art) but the soprano was distracted by the baritone singing the villain, Scarpia, who kept pacing back and forth across the stage behind her. She got her revenge when she's supposed to reach for a knife on the table and stab him to death -- Scarpia then goes into his death throes clutching at the knife -- except she stabbed him instead with a banana.

You won't get to experience gems like that at the Harrisburg Symphony performance - this will be a "concert" performance, not staged, no costumes, no acting out great scenes (with or without bananas or trampolines). But a great way to experience all the wonderful music Puccini composed for his opera, not just the occasional highlight like Recondita armonia (you can see Luciano Pavarotti sing it here in this 1982 concert broadcast), or Vissi d'arte (sung here by Maria Callas).

Maria Callas is probably one of the most famous Toscas. Here's a chance for you to see a fully-staged performance of the whole of Act II from Franco Zeferelli's production recorded in 1964 at Covent Garden with Maria Callas as Tosca and Tito Gobbi as Scarpia. Their recording of this scene on Angel is probably one of the most dramatically gripping I've heard. Unfortunately, they don't have 'supertitles' or closed captioning here, but if you read the plot synopsis for Act II above, you should be able to follow the action.

The illustration at the top of the post, by the way, is the original poster for the premiere of Puccini's Tosca in 1900 and captures the final moments of Act II where Tosca, after having stabbed Scarpia, places a crucifix on his chest after placing lighted candles on either side of his corpse. It's sort of like a scene from CSI: Rome, 1900.

- Dr. Dick

Harrisburg Symphony Musician Goes to the YouTube Symphony

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? In addition to "practice, practice, practice" - there's now "up-load, up-load, up-load."

One of the 96 players in the YouTube Symphony was Devin Howell, the assistant principal bass player of the Harrisburg Symphony and a recent new member of his hometown orchestra. You can read my posts over at Thoughts on a Train about his winning and his description of the whole process of applying for it - and watch one of his audition up-loads - and then winning the audition!

This past week, they all gathered - from more than 30 countries around the world - in New York City, had rehearsals and master classes at the Juilliard School of Music before giving the concert at the legendary Carnegie Hall. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas, in introducing the eclectic concert, described it as a combination "classical music summit conference, scout jamboree with an element of speed dating thrown in..."

Here's Devin with his fellow bass players in a photo he'd up-loaded to Facebook this morning which he captioned "without a doubt, the greatest bass section to grace this stage... on this particular day... this particular hour. CARNEGIE HALL, NY." He's off to play in the Allentown Symphony for the weekend, so we'll catch up after he gets back.

Considering all the musicians were chosen by up-loading video clips of their playing as part of the audition process, I was hoping the concert would be broadcast live through YouTube. Not so. But here IS the concert (or at least the first half, so far) after-the-fact - which was posted (where else?) on YouTube!
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You can also read reviews of the concert - from the Washington Post's Anne Midgette (who didn't really like it) and from the New York Times' Anthony Tommasini (who did).

The problems with the performance stem more from putting together a diverse program like this with so many musicians from so many backgrounds who've never played together before and doing it all in three days. But the enthusiasm of the players can be seen in the video as well as heard in the music and for a first-time experience like this, all the hoopla aside, it's a wonderful event and a great start. Not to mention, perhaps, a first-time classical music concert experience for lots of listeners!

While it's too early to tell what the long-range impact may be, consider this: wouldn't it be cool to have the performance entirely on-line, using the Internet as an alternative performance space to the standard concert hall? To have the conductor in front of a camera being up-loaded to the musicians all around the world and all of them broadcasting at the same time?

Oh yeah, that means some musicians will be playing at 5am, not much you can do about that... And though the virtual interaction might not be as much fun as the live social opportunity of attending "symphony camp," it's still an amazing opportunity to bring so many musicians together for a performance.

However, at the moment internet technology wouldn't really be able to do it quite so smoothly as everybody playing together on one stage. Trying to follow a video of the conductor on your computer could be disastrous - one blip and everybody's off! Or "my computer just froze" and there goes the big flute solo... And of course, how can a single musician in a living room adjust to the sound and ensemble of the other players in his section or how can she fit her phrasing into the rest of the orchestra's? A violinist needs to watch the concertmaster and then there's that inexplicable mental interaction that musicians share. Those are things that the technology - as amazing as it is - can't do (*yet*). But who knows where it will be in the future?

When I saw my first live broadcast on-line - a few years ago when (I think) La Scala broadcast a live performance of Verdi's Aida on the internet - I thought "who wants to watch something as vast as an opera like Aida on a 2-inch square screen on a computer monitor?" It kept starting and stopping, then going dark. I tried watching the Van Cliburn Competition which was also trying live internet broadcasting and had similar problems.

But then I remembered, in this age of HD Television, how my parents had described watching their first TV broadcasts back in the '40s with this big box of a thing in a friend's living room and they all gathered around to watch this grainy black-and-white image on a tiny litte screen and thought it was absolutely amazing. Of course, other than movie theaters, there had been nothing to compare it to and this you can watch in your own home. Since then, we've gotten used to bigger and bigger screens and more than just adding color to it. High Definition is only the latest advancement.

While we now can watch movies on cell-phones and listen to symphonies on iPods with tiny little ear-buds, perhaps the cycle of technology is ripe for internet broadcasting in the future. Besides, the idea of a human walking on the moon had only been the stuff of dreams and comic books until it actually happened.

Well, I'll be posting more about the YouTube Symphony in the nearer future - but meanwhile, I want to echo the New York Times' critic who ended his review by saying at least when somebody got the idea to do this, they decided to put together a symphony orchestra, not a basketball team.

- Dr. Dick

An Introduction to the Harrisburg Symphony Blog

Hi - and welcome to the new Harrisburg Symphony Blog!

There are lots of concerts to attend - that’s what a symphony orchestra does: give concerts. And you’ll be able to find out more about these concerts here on the blog – information about the music, some background to the composers and their works and the artists you’ll hear perform it – as well as having a chance to go backstage and behind-the-scenes.

But there are many other things that go on beyond the concerts and I’ll be letting you know about some educational projects and other activities and performances in the community, not just the subscription concerts.

Stuart Malina, the music director of the Harrisburg Symphony, and I plan to sit down and talk about the music on the programs, podcasts you can listen to that will enhance your experience with the up-coming concerts.

There will be posts about issues that may affect the classical music world and chances - through the comments – for you to express your opinions on some topics that may affect our very own classical music world in Harrisburg.

We’ll feature profiles of individual musicians who make up the larger entity we call an orchestra – ranging from some who were part of it when I became involved off-stage with them almost 30 years ago to some of the newer members who’ve only recently become a part of it.

My own history with the orchestra goes back to my childhood. I attended my first concert with the Harrisburg Symphony in 1963 when I was 13 years old, so you can say I’ve grown up with the orchestra which has grown a great deal since then, celebrating its 80th Season in 2009-2010. After years of college, grad school and teaching, I returned to Harrisburg in 1980 and began writing program notes before becoming the assistant conductor, the personnel and orchestra manager, initiating the pre-concert talks and even writing and arranging some music for performances. So I’m pretty familiar with the organization that is the Harrisburg Symphony as well as the music they play. So I’m really excited to be bringing it to you on-line with “Dr. Dick’s Harrisburg Symphony Blog.”

I should mention it’s not my intent to “review” concerts – I’ll tell you about them after-the-fact but I'm uncomfortable critiquing them in this forum (no pun intended) – and the opinions expressed here are mine, not necessarily those of the Harrisburg Symphony or its members. That’s just “the usual disclaimer,” you know?

But however you follow the blogs you enjoy reading – whether it’s one or a dozen or more – add this to your feed or your reader or your favorites and keep checking in with us.

- Dr. Dick