Thursday, March 21, 2013

Verdi's La Traviata: What's it all about, Alfredo?

This weekend, Stuart Malina conducts his third opera with the Harrisburg Symphony – a tale of tragic love, La Traviata, by Giuseppe Verdi. Basically, the plot boils down to “Boy Meets Girl; Boy Loses Girl and (this being opera) Girl Dies.”

But along the way it’s filled with not only wonderful melodies and great arias but also tender moments and heart-breaking drama. It is not only great music but great theater, all written by a master of the craft and one that has captured the hearts of listeners ever since it was first heard 160 years ago.

You can experience the magic of Verdi’s music with performances Saturday at 8pm and Sunday at 3pm at the Forum in downtown Harrisburg. Tickets range from $12 to $64 Call the Harrisburg Symphony Box Office at 717-545-5527 Monday–Friday, 8:30am–4:30pm, or purchase online at There's a pre-concert talk an hour before each performance.

Students and children receive a 50% discount off single ticket prices. Students should present a valid student ID card. Student Rush tickets are available on a limited basis 30 minutes before each Masterworks and Capital BlueCross Pops performances at a cost of $5.00 per student with a valid student ID card.

You can read Sean Adams’ article previewing the concert at the Patriot-News PennLive website, here.

(note the "Scarlet Letter" in the title)
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Stuart talked about this up-coming performance during his pre-season preview held last September at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore:

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Our principal cast includes Inna Dukach as Violetta, returning after her performance in Puccini’s La Boheme a few seasons ago; Alok Kumar, making his debut with the HSO as Alfredo Germont; and baritone Grant Youngblood (who’d been heard previously as Scarpia in Tosca and Rodolfo in La Boheme) who returns as Giorgio Germont.

In addition to Harrisburg-based singers like Damian Savarino and Christyan Seay among the supporting roles, the Susquehanna Chorale, under the direction of Linda Tedford, takes on the role of the Party Guests.

Now, this is a “concert performance” which means it’s not the same thing as watching it live in an opera house – the Forum stage isn’t big enough, there is no pit, anymore, and I believe there are still rules about nailing scenery into the stage floor – but you will “see” singers as characters who interact with each other and move around on occasion (a kind of simple “blocking” for the action) and, perhaps most importantly, even for lovers of opera who may not admit it as well as for opera newbies, the translation of the words above the stage (technically, like subtitles in a foreign film, these are called “super”titles).

You should probably read through a plot synopsis before you go but you don’t have to, if you follow the supertitles.

Basically, there’s a woman with a “certain profession” named Violetta Valery. In those days, she was called a “courtesan” which has nothing to do with being a lawyer. It’s a thousand-dollar word for what we’d think of as a high-class call-girl, more than a street-level prostitute with a better agent. She’s quite the party girl, a famous hostess of the then trendy social scene and that is where we first meet her. Also, there’s a young man, new to her circle, who’s quite taken by her. His name is Alfredo Germont.

During the course of this party, she realizes she has an admirer and, after everybody leaves, she realizes she may also be in love with him but it would be folly: she needs to be free. After all, professionally this would be a bad move.

So between the end of Act I and the start of Act II, she’s made a bad business decision: she has given up her former life and moved in with Alfredo. Unfortunately, it’s not all “happily ever after.” An aspiring writer, he has no income. And then his father, Giorgio Germont (usually called “The Elder Germont”) shows up and tells Violetta he is ruining his family: as long as she’s living immorally with his son, his daughter cannot hope to find a decent marriage herself. And so, after much pleading, Violetta agrees to leave Alfredo though, when he finds out, he blames it on her old lifestyle.

Back to the party scene, Alfredo confronts his ex, humiliating her before her guests. Then his father enters and denounces Alfredo and his behavior (which might seem like mixed signals, to some).

In the final scene, Violetta is now dying of tuberculosis – she’s tried to hide the fact she has been ill for some time – and Giorgio has told his son the truth behind Violetta’s leaving him. Alfredo returns to her but finds it is too late. As Giorgio arrives with the doctor, the father laments what he has caused between them and Violetta dies in Alfredo’s arms.

You can read a more detailed synopsis at the Metropolitan Opera website, here – and read a review of the current Met production, here.

Here is a clip of Inna Dukach – our Violetta – singing part of the duet from La Traviata, Act II, with Alfredo’s father.
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The opera, whose title translates as "The Fallen Woman," was written and produced in 1853, the same season he wrote and premiered another popular masterpiece of his, Il trovatore. Based on the novel The Lady of the Camelias by Alexander Dumas fils (the son of the man who wrote The Count of Monte Cristo) published only the year before, the nature of the plot - good heavens, a courtesan?? - was considered scandalous not because she was a courtesan but because it was set in the present day. So the government censors allowed it to be staged only if they re-set the story to 1700 or so when it didn't matter if those people led immoral lives. It wasn't until 1880 that Italian theaters finally were able to stage it as if it were set in the 1850s, some 25 years earlier... hardly "the present day." Modern stagings can be more flexible, of course, but that's another story...

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There are lots of Top 10 Lists around and, depending on who’s compiling it or how they approach the data, they may differ in the details.

But on most lists about operas, three or four composers will consistently rank very high, usually with multiple entries: Mozart, Verdi, Puccini and Wagner. And of these four, two are celebrating bicentennials this season – both Verdi and Wagner were born in 1813.

But there’s a reason these “most popular” operas are performed so often – they sell tickets. Why? Because people love them. Why? Well, the cynic in me wants to say “because they’re performed so often” but I have to admit, as much as I love Berg’s Wozzeck, programming it as often as opera houses program La Boheme is not going to turn it into box office gold.

It’s easy to get all snooty about the difference between great works and popular works.

Take the Oscars – Hollywood’s own kind of “Top 10” List – it’s obvious the films you saw and probably enjoyed the most may not have been nominated, much less won. The voting process aside, how many past winners have actually become the Classic Movies that appear on the “Top 10 Greatest Movies Ever” lists?

So whether American Idol creates a popular star who survives the flash-fame of Reality TV or not, at least they – and their public – had their chance.

Giuseppe Verdi was a young man who had written two operas: while writing his first one, both his daughters died; shortly afterward, he began work on his second one, a comedy, and his wife died. When the second opera turned into a dismal failure, Verdi threatened to give up opera – and perhaps understandably. In his autobiography, he writes that when someone suggested a new opera, he pushed it aside, but then the script fell open to the line “Va, pensiero,” a hymn sung by the Hebrew slaves during their Babylonian captivity and a melody immediately came to him – which became the famous chorus, “Fly, Thought, on Golden Wings.”

Not only did this opera – Nabucco – become his first lasting success, this chorus went on to gain him instant and, more importantly, lasting fame.

As Stuart mentioned in his pre-season preview how he’d seen Nabucco at the vast outdoor theater at the Baths of Caracalla outside Rome, when it came to this chorus, everybody around him started singing it.


Here’s a video of a performance of “Va, pensiero” at a summer concert on the main plaza in Naples. Notice who the conductor, Antonio Pappano, is conducting. Notice who’s singing – not just the chorus on stage: the audience.

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This chorus was not just about captive Jews in Babylon longing for their homeland. By reason of allegory, audiences in Verdi’s day saw the meaning behind the words. Northern Italy, then, was part of the Austrian Empire. The southern kingdom of Naples and Sicily had long been ruled by Spanish or French kings. Italy, as a unified nation, didn’t exist until the 1860s, so in 1842 when Italians longing for their own government heard these words set to Verdi’s music, it struck, shall we say, a chord.

It didn’t hurt that Verdi had written a beautiful melody that was both beautifully crafted but easy to sing. It became unofficially something of a national anthem for the Italian resistance. And the German-speaking bureaucrats and police could do nothing about it: it was a popular chorus from a popular opera by a popular Italian composer based on a well-known Biblical story.

And it didn’t hurt, either, when Victor Emanuel became the king who would eventually lead Italy to independence, that these lovers of Verdi’s chorus could shout their favorite composer’s name as a political slogan: Vittorio Emanuel, Re dItalia! Victor Emanuel, King of Italy! Viva VERDI!

So, early on, Verdi learned the importance of a Great Tune. He would use this skill – and it’s as much a skill as it is luck – and succeeded so often, he became something most composers would kill for: respect as a great composer but also the income of a popular one.

In fact, when Verdi died, after he'd asked no music be sung at his funeral, thousands of mourners lining the streets of Milan during the procession broke out spontaneously, singing "Va, pensiero."  

His “big tunes” would be sung by people in the taverns, played by organ grinders on street corners, and of course people went to the opera waiting to hear them. Everybody knew Verdi’s music – at least his “big tunes.”

Like “La donna é mobile” from Rigoletto.

Or “The Anvil Chorus” from Il trovatore.

Who could forget the Triumphal March from Aïda?

It's not unlike some of our most popular examples of musical theater today: whether it's Cats, Phantom of the Opera, Les Miserables or The Sound of Music.

And let’s not forget the drinking song, the famous Brindisi, from Act I of La Traviata, “Libiamo!”

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This is a film version with tenor Placido Domingo as the young lover Alfredo Germont, who is smitten with a young woman named Violetta Valery. He proposes a toast – to love.

Here’s a slightly different staging of the same scene, this from the current production at the Metropolitan Opera House.

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The tenor here is Matthew Polanzani with Natalie Dessay as Violetta. Most recently, you might have seen it with Diana Damrau as Violetta and baritone Placido Domingo in the role of Alfredo’s father (yes, at 72, Domingo is still singing even if it’s not his famous tenor roles from earlier in his career).

If you can stand one more Brindisi, here’s a marketing ploy for the Age of Social Media – the Flash Mob which took place one afternoon in a major downtown department store in Amsterdam.

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Note the response of the woman at the balcony rail when the guy next to her breaks out in song at 1:07. Too bad things break down at the very end but the acoustics of shopping malls and conductor sight-lines (talk about a pit!) plus an over-eager pianist do not make for perfection. But hey…

Here are some famous excerpts from Verdi’s opera: in this scene from the end of Act I, soprano Anja Harteros sings “E strano / Sempre Libera” in which Violetta, tempted by the love of a handsome man (what a strange feeling) responds by refusing to give up her freedom:

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This is an audio clip from the current Met production of Act II, the scene between Violetta and the Elder Germont, one of the most touching moments in the entire opera if not in Verdi’s complete output. At first derisive of Violetta, he comes to realize she is, after all, a woman in love and that her love is genuine and that her willing to leave Alfredo will be a great sacrifice to her. She begins this excerpt by singing, "Say good-bye to youth." Diana Damrau is Violetta and Placido Domingo sings the baritone role of Giorgio Germont.

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In addition to writing great tunes like “Libiamo,” Verdi had a knack for duets between fathers and daughters – Rigoletto and Gilda, for one; Amonasro and Aïda, for another – and even though Violetta is not Giorgio’s daughter, the empathy is still much the same. Verdi, who loved Shakespeare and would famously set Macbeth, Otello, and Falstaff during his long career, always wanted to write an opera based on King Lear but the “scene on the heath,” he said, terrified him. Too bad – imagine the possibility of three father-daughter duets in that one…

Dick Strawser

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Harrisburg Symphony's 82nd Birthday

The Harrisburg Symphony in 1931
Yesterday was the 82nd Anniversary of the 1st Concert Ever given by the Harrisburg Symphony and it was held at the William Penn High School in uptown Harrisburg on Thursday, March 19th, 1931, at 8:15pm.

This photograph - as far as I know, the earliest extant photo of the orchestra - was taken at the 2nd Concert Ever given by the Harrisburg Symphony in November, 1931, also on the stage of the William Penn High School.

That March concert was not the first time the orchestra got together – since the fall, they had gathered to “read through” or rehearse a variety of music ranging from Strauss Waltzes, Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, Liszt’s Les preludes, Wagner’s Tannhäuser and Meistersinger Overtures to three Beethoven symphonies – the Eroica, the 5th and the 9th (at least a part of it). Curiously, they also read through a little-known symphony by Vassily Kalinnikov (the original list referred to it as No. 2 in G minor, but No. 1 is the G Minor Symphony and it was that one the orchestra performed during the 1939 and 1947 seasons).

These initial exploratory rehearsals were held in the music room at J. H. Troup’s Music Store which, until the early-70s was a fixture on the southeast corner of Market Square, opposite the church. It was there the initial meetings had been held in 1927 when the idea of forming an orchestra in Harrisburg was first being discussed.

It all happened because three pianists sat around a kitchen table in the Emerald Street home of Mary Barnum Bush Hauck who was having coffee with her guests, Alice Decevee Mitchell and Jacques Jolas. Mrs. Hauck was a well-known piano teacher in town and Mrs. Mitchell, a former Juilliard student, was the daughter of the piano and theory teacher and soon director at the recently established Harrisburg Conservatory of Music, located at 607 N. 2nd Street which still stands as an apartment building between State & North Streets. (This should be a separate topic: according to Cornelius Rodgers’ 75th Anniversary history of the orchestra, the conservatory had a “large concert hall beautifully decorated and outstanding in its acoustics” which “at the height of its success [had] more than five hundred students from Pennsylvania and surrounding states.” I can find a reference to an organist who had “recently graduated from the Harrisburg Conservatory of Music” in a 1918 newspaper archive, listed on-line.)

Mrs. Mitchell attended Juilliard when she was 17 and later returned home to teach at the Conservatory. She later married lawyer Ehrman B. Mitchell and their home, Beaufort Farms on Lingelstown Road north of town, became a center for social and musical (as well as equestrian) activities in the area.

Jacques Jolas was an American-born pianist who, during a 1927 tour, performed at the J.H. Troup music room with a “Franz Liszt Chickering Piano” and following his tour, he returned to Harrisburg where he met several other musicians and music-lovers in the city.

It was over coffee at Mrs. Hauck’s that Jolas asked the inevitable question “why can’t we start an orchestra in this town?”

The first doubt was finding a conductor. Jolas had a young friend in New York City he thought would solve that problem: George King Raudenbush.

Then, with some of Mrs. Mitchell’s connections from her Juilliard days, a committee was formed to explore the idea. Jolas decided to settle in Harrisburg and teach piano.

By 1929, John Erskine, president of the Juilliard Foundation, came to town with pianist Olga Samaroff who, born Lucy Hickenlooper in San Antonio TX, had gone on to become a leading pianist in early-20th Century America, recently divorced from a young conductor whom she had discovered and promoted named Leopold Stokowski (perhaps you’ve heard of him?). Together, they spoke to the assembled guests “about the cultural value of a symphony orchestra to the community and what it would mean to young musicians.”

Erskine also stressed that “while the primary function of the Juilliard School of Music was to train professional musicians, it should also lay the foundation for audiences everywhere in the country.”

Erskine selected Jolas as a representative of the Juilliard Foundation in Harrisburg and to form (and head) the Harrisburg Music Center whose purpose was to create an orchestra. The Juilliard Foundation had set up similar organizations in Atlanta, Nashville and in Iowa, New Mexico and Ohio as well.

By the summer of 1930, in the midst of the Depression, Jolas gathered some musician-friends to “round up” other players for the orchestra and eventually they had 68 members by the time they began their “preparatory rehearsals.” The players requested, apparently, a conductor from “out of town,” given their previous experiences with “local conductors” which “had in several instances led to failure.”

The question was, given the economic situation, was there sufficient interest to support an orchestra?

Olga Samaroff and John Erskine returned to Harrisburg to give benefit recitals, as did now-resident Jacques Jolas.

One of the violinists went door to door and sold 200 tickets herself. Other members of the orchestra or the founding committee like Mrs. Hauck (who sometimes spent two hours explaining the orchestra and why it was important) had done the same: tickets cost $2.

And so George King Raudenbush was invited to come in from New York City to conduct the first official public concert given by the Harrisburg Symphony at 8:15 Thursday evening, March 19th, 1931, at the William Penn High School Auditorium.

The program consisted of
Gluck: Iphigenia in Aulis: Overture
Schubert: Symphony No. 8 in B Minor, “The Unfinished”
...after intermission...
Schumann: Piano Concerto in A Minor (with Jacques Jolas, pianist)
Fauré: Pelleas et Melisande: Prelude & Spinning Song
Dvořák: Two Slavonic Dances (in A-flat Major; in G Minor)
Sibelius: Finlandia

A month later, the Wednesday Club staged two benefit performances of Humperdinck’s opera, Hansel and Gretel with members of the orchestra, in what was also another first: the first time an opera had been performed in Harrisburg entirely by “local talent.” The event raised $1,000 for the fledgling orchestra to which the Wednesday Club added an additional gift of $300. This may not sound like much according to today’s finances, but during the Depression, this was a considerable amount of money.

Following that first concert, an unnamed critic from the Harrisburg Patriot wrote:

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“George King Raudenbush, despite his very youthful appearance, proved that he is an able and understanding leader, with perfect confidence in himself and his ensemble. The ensemble work was exquisite and the players followed him to a man. The orchestra proves its skill as an organization in classical music. In the very first number, Gluck’s overture to the lyric tragedy, Iphigenia in Aulis, the orchestra gave instant indication of a unity of attack which promised much for the concert and that promise was fulfilled.”
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Mr. Rodgers does not quote further from the review, but I would assume (or at least hope) he stayed for the rest of the concert.

A much more extensive review (or at least as quoted) came from William Britton in the Harrisburg Sunday Courier.

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“So overwhelmingly impressive was the first public performance of the recently organized Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra in the auditorium of the William Penn High School last Thursday night, that he who should presume to review in spirit of captious and carping criticism might be justly charged with hypercriticism. It was indeed, such an extraordinarily successful orchestral debut as to be placed beyond the domain of ordinary criticism, by reason of the amazing and astonishingly [sic] excellence which characterized the performance in its entirety[.]

This new orchestra proved by the triumphal performance of Thursday night, that it is indisputably worthy of the whole-hearted support of those who have the well-being of the city in their heart. It seems hardly credible that the orchestra that gave this astonishingly meritorious performance could have been assembled, drilled and appear in a notably worthy performance with the comparatively few months that conductor Raudenbush has been in command of this musical force.

During this critic’s long musical life he has had the opportunity to hear many orchestras in their inceptyion and after thay have gained fame, yet he has never heard one composed of the players of a single community display such remarkable, such extraordinary proficiency and finish of performance, as did the Harrisburg Symphony Orchestra last Thursday night.”
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And from the Harrisburg Evening News, either a brief quote or a more succinct comment:

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“Mr. Raudenbush directed understandingly and the orchestra responded with a confidence that was a tribute to his leadership.”
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(And, yes, at the time, Harrisburg had essentially three newspapers: The Patriot (the morning edition), the Evening News and a separate Sunday paper, the Harrisburg Sunday Courier. Imagine that!)

Raudenbush, a violinist born in Jersey Shore, PA, of Pennsylvania Dutch heritage, studied in Detroit and New York City where he became a member of the New York Symphony Orchestra (which, incidentally, had joined with the New York Philharmonic Society on March 20, 1928, to form what we now call the New York Philharmonic) where he continued playing under maestro Walter Damrosch until 1934. (It is interesting to note that HSO conductor Larry Newland, music director here from 1978-1994, was a violist and Assistant Conductor under Zubin Mehta with the New York Philharmonic.)

In 1934, Raudenbush also left his position as assistant concertmaster of the NBC Orchestra, to devote more time to conducting his orchestra in Harrisburg. He also proceeded to help organize the York Symphony Orchestra and conducted it for its first season as well. He retired from Harrisburg at the end of the 1949-1950 season.

The 2nd concert - the start of the first full season of the orchestra in November, 1931 - included

Beethoven: Coriolan Overture
Mozart: Symphony No. 35 in D, "Hafner"
Lalo: Symphonie espagnole (with Sadah Shuchari)
Stoessel: Lullaby
Stringfield: Cripple Creek
Grainger: Tune from County Derry; Country Gardens
Tchaikovsky: Marche slav

In subsequent concerts that season, Jolas returned to play Brahms' 2nd Piano Concerto, and there was Dvořák's "New World" Symphony and Stravinsky's "Firebird" Suite (the ballet had been composed only 22 years earlier, so this would have been relatively new music for the time).

Even after the concerts moved to the Forum, the first rehearsals for each program were still held at the high school well into the 1960s. I remember observing many rehearsals there when I was in middle school then (that’s the 1960s, not the 1930s, thank you).

And so the orchestra continues today, under Stuart Malina, in what can only be described as on-going healthy circumstances with a bright future for the arts in Central Pennsylvania, not that ever-necessary contributions couldn’t be better. But that’s always the case for the Arts, regardless of the economy.

Happy Birthday to the Harrisburg Symphony – and many more!

Dick Strawser