Classical Music at the Movies: Tosca becomes a Bond gal!

Bang in the middle of the fast-paced James Bond film Quantum of Solace, the action spills over onto the stunning set of Giacomo Puccini’s opera thriller Tosca on a floating stage (Seebühne) of the historic opera house on the shore of Lake Constance or Bodensee, in Bregenz, Austria.

When the publicity director of the Bregenz Festspiele (Bregenz Festival) received a phone call from an English-speaking film producer who didn’t want to divulge too many details about the film, she jokingly said to her colleagues that it could be a Bond film. Many months later, she was surprised to find her hunch had been correct.

The Bond production team had originally been interested in the sets for the previous opera production Giuseppe Verdi’s “Un Ballo in Maschera” (“The Masked Ball”) and one can see why. The very title suggests concealed identity and classic cloak-and-dagger potential. The set for this opera had a large skeletal hand turning the pages of a book. However, once a Bregenz opera production completes its two-year lifespan, the sets are destroyed. Fortunately, QoS director Marc Forster loved the set of Tosca as well. Both he and producer Barbara Broccoli were profoundly impressed – by the unique location on the shore of Lake Constance, the imposing stage set with its high level of technical sophistication, and the modern architecture of the Festival Opera House. This set featured a gigantic moving eye.

QUANTUM OF SOLACE

In an interview, Forster explained “I just loved the location, and I think the eye just has a great metaphor for Bond. Eyes and titles of Bond films and the gun barrel in the circle at the beginning. And I liked that it was ‘Tosca.’ And Puccini’s opera is also a metaphor of what is going on as well. I thought the whole thing was convenient…Tosca is a terrific metaphor for Bond on so many levels”.”

In the film plot, for some reason the “bad guys” choose to have a conference meeting through microphones and earpieces during a performance of Tosca while seated scattered about the opera house. Bond (Daniel Craig) eavesdrops on their conversation before breaking it up. The conspirators begin to exit from their seats, revealing their identities to Bond, and prompting the lone one of them who stays behind to shrug as he says “Well, Tosca isn’t for everyone”.

Both the sets and the scenes from Tosca add atmosphere to the Bond film. The roving big eye also is an emblem for the police state that 1800s Italy had become in the opera, with the evil Baron Scarpia at its apex. And Bond is the eye in the film, spying on the clandestine meeting unobserved until he reveals his hand. The very word ‘spy’ apparently derives from the Indo-European root meaning to observe, behold, or look.

The choice of excerpts from the opera is also significant. Scarpia’s lustful aria “Va Tosca”, the finale of Act I, is a meeting of the sacred and the profane as it is juxtaposed with the Te Deum by the chorus as it rises to a swell to the heavens. It is as good a metaphor as any for the forces of good pitted against those of evil, as Bond does battle with the villains.

This is a powerful example of Puccini’s brilliant writing, and this particular episode possibly inspired Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather trilogy, where the baptism of Don Michael Corleone’s godchild is played out at the same time as his enemies are being systematically and ruthlessly eliminated.

Back to Quantum of Solace. The execution of Tosca’s lover Mario Cavaradossi by firing squad on stage launches the gun battle that then erupts between Bond and the villains. It is depicted brilliantly, like a silent film, interspersed with flashes of scenes from the opera

The German magazine Der Spiegel applauded the way in which under Forster’s direction, “the aria drowns out the hail of bullets”. It went on to say “This artistic intent is new in the Bond film series. Action before never meant anything other than action…..Forster by contrast stylises the shoot-out as a fascinating ballet of death, and Bond is just one of the dancers”.

The scene where Tosca stabs Scarpia to death at the end of the Bregenz sequence in the film seems to foretell what will happen in the film. In the opera, this happens before the execution of Cavaradossi, but this is artistic license.

It all happens in seven-and-a-half minutes in the film. But short as the sequence was, the film crew spent a lot of time, effort and money on it. It took thirteen days to shoot, during which time the whole area was cordoned off. 1500 extras were recruited (from the thousands more that applied) to play the part of opera-goers at a sold-out performance in which the action takes place. At the time, all the extras knew was that they were being cast in “Bond 22” as the film title was still a closely guarded secret. Every one of the 1500 extras had to go to the make-up and grooming department, to be worked upon by dozens of stylists. Those who didn’t have their own tuxedo or evening gown had one provided for them.

In the Bregenz production of Tosca, Sebastien Soules and Karine Babajanyan sing Scarpia and Tosca respectively, with Brandon Jovanovich as Cavaradossi.

The raw emotions of power, love, deception, jealousy and revenge are common to both the opera and the film, and this is why the Bregenz sequence works so well.

Die-hard opera fans however had a field day discussing this in cyberspace, at the very gall of people talking during an opera performance, (never mind that it’s just a film) without being shushed by those seated next to them in the audience! You may have a license to kill, Bond, but please everyone keep quiet during a performance. The world can be saved after the fat lady has sung and the final curtain falls.

(An edited version of this article was published on 31 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Telemann’s Viola Concerto

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Last Sunday, Camerata Child’s Play India conducted by Prof. Santiago Lusardi Girelli played a concert at Santa Cruz church. One highlight of the programme was Georg Philipp Telemann’s Viola Concerto in G major (TWV 51: G9), with visiting musician from Spain, Pablo Trave Gonzalez as soloist. I try to avoid making absolute statements, but I can certainly vouch for the fact that during the years I’ve been in Goa, we’ve not so far had a viola concerto performed here before. So this in itself made this performance quite special.

This concerto is one of Telemann’s most famous of his surviving concertos, and still performed quite regularly for its beauty. It is also perhaps the first viola concerto ever composed (written around 1716-21 while Telemann was in Frankfurt as its music director) and the sole Baroque concerto for the instrument in the popular repertoire. It is thought to have been first performed in Frankfurt for one of the concerts held by the Frauenstein Association, an early form of philharmonic society that sponsored “weekly great concertos”, a subscription series of orchestral concerts.

It is precisely because of concerts such as these that Telemann resorted to writing concertos of any kind. In his autobiography of 1718, he actually confesses to being unmoved by the form: “I must own that since the concerto form was never close to my heart it was indifferent to me whether I wrote a great many or not”. Despite this assertion, he went on to write over a hundred concerti for solo instruments as well as other combinations. He is in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the most prolific composer in history, at least in terms of surviving oeuvre. He wrote 20 complete Lutheran church year cantata cycles, which amounts to around 1700 cantatas! And he wrote over 50 operas or secular cantatas, 125 orchestral suites, 125 concertos, 40 quartets, 130 trios and much, much more.

telemann

Georg Philipp Telemann (1681-1767) was born four years before J. S. Bach, Handel and Scarlatti, and outlived them all; Bach by seventeen years, and Handel and Scarlatti by eight and ten respectively. He knew Johann Sebastian Bach well enough to stand as godfather to one of his sons, and lent his middle name to the child: Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach. And he also was more than a passing acquaintance to Handel.

In his day, Telemann was regarded as the greatest musician in northern Europe, and commanded much more respect than even J. S. Bach, incredible as it might seem to us today. In fact, the prestigious post of Director of Music in the principal churches in Leipzig, where Bach produced so much of his sublime sacred music from 1723 until his demise in 1750, was only offered to him because Telemann turned it down in favour of the much better post of cantor of the major churches of Hamburg. Interest in Telemann’s music then receded until a revival of interest in Baroque music in the latter half of the 20th century.

In the same autobiography of 1718, Telemann also writes some of his own humorous verse, among which are the lines: “Give each instrument/what is suitable for it/So he who plays will do so with joy/ and you will take pleasure in listening to it…”

Telemann’s formative years in his birthplace Magdeburg Germany were spent learning to play various instruments. His intention was to familiarise himself with the basic techniques and sonorities of as many instruments as possible, rather than to become a virtuoso player. This knowledge was what he needed as a composer. His viola concerto displays a marvellous grasp of the unique, rich dark chocolately deep-throated timbre of the instrument.

The purported ‘weakness’ of the viola as an instrument that has led to much less music written for it as compared to its string cousins the violin and the cello, is also its greatest asset. The viola might not have the sweet brilliance of the violin or the low bass sonority of the cello, but its mellow tone is in a class by itself. It is conventionally used as a ‘filler’ in the orchestra, to add depth and tone colour to the harmonies of the string section. It is precisely for this that so many great composers loved and played this instrument, from Bach to Mozart to Beethoven to Schubert to Dvořák.

The viola concerto in G major has four movements (unlike concertos by Vivaldi and Bach, who followed the more ‘modern’ three-movement format for their concertos) in typical contrasting slow-fast-slow-fast fashion of a “church sonata” (sonata di chiesa): Largo-Allegro-Andante-Presto. The orchestral forces that support the solo viola are light: strings and continuo (2 violins, viola, cello, double bass and harpsichord). It can also be played by just a string quartet and solo viola.

The first movement Largo is slow and stately, with a beautiful expansive line for the viola in calm confident conversation with the rest of the orchestra. The second movement, Allegro, bubbles over joyfully in its syncopated, elegant melody, and is a good example of the ‘stile galante’ (galant style) that began to sweep away the high Baroque style towards the end of Telemann’s life. The Andante is in the melancholic key of E minor (the relative minor of the main or ‘tonic’ key G major) in which both the soloist and the ensemble seem to be in dialogue with each other, in search of an elusive truth. The finale, Presto, begins energetically in the ensemble, with contrapuntal cross-rhythms within its sections, and is joined in by the soloist, leading up to a robust conclusion.

(An edited version of this article was published on 24 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Pavane for a Dead Princess

Camerata Child’s Play India is delighted to have Professor Santiago Lusardi Girelli again as its visiting conductor, with a new group of visiting musicians from Spain.

On the concert programme, Girelli chose a work that is worth looking into, ‘Pavane pour une Infante Défunte’ (Pavane for a Dead Princess) by French composer Maurice Ravel (1875-1937). Ravel originally wrote it as a solo piano work in 1899 as a student of composition under Gabriel Fauré at the Conservatoire de Paris, and his first significant success. Fauré himself had written a Pavane also for solo piano in 1867, and this must certainly have been the imaginative springboard for Ravel. Ravel published the orchestral version of the Pavane for a Dead Princess in 1910. Fauré had also orchestrated his own Pavane in 1887. Clearly the teacher had set a path for the student.

The pavane was a slow processional dance that was immensely popular in the courts of Europe at the peak of the Renaissance period, the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The word ‘pavane’ is believed to have come from the Italian ‘danza Padovana” (‘dance typical of Padua’), or from the Spanish “pavón” meaning peacock.

Ravel candidly confessed when questioned about the intriguing title, “I simply liked the sound of those words and I put them there, c’est tout. My only thought was the pleasure of alliteration.”  At another point, he elaborated: “Do not attach to the title any more importance than it has. Do not dramatize it. It is not a funeral lament for a dead child, but rather an evocation of the pavane which could have been danced by such a little princess [infant] as painted by Velázquez at the Spanish court.”

It was an extension of the fascination bordering on obsession that so many French composers around that time (Édouard Lalo, Emmanuel Chabrier, Georges Bizet and Claude Debussy come to mind) demonstrated for all things Spanish.

For those interested, it is possible to hear on YouTube a piano roll from 1922 of Ravel himself playing the Pavane. It is fascinating to actually watch a specialised self-playing piano (‘piano player’ or ‘pianola’) play such a roll. Not just the notes, but the pedalling, the dynamics, the lightness or heaviness of touch and other nuances are all reproduced faithfully. It is as if the invisible ghost of the performer is making the music at the instrument.

What is also instructive from this piano roll is the pace or tempo at which Ravel wished his Pavane to be played. He plays it in under 6 minutes, and was critical of pianists who were more self-indulgent. He admonished one such musician: “Remember that I wrote a pavane for a dead princess, not a dead pavane for a princess.”

On the other hand, Ravel’s biographer Benjamin Ivry tells us Ravel intended the piece to be played far more slowly than it tends to be played today. A contemporary music critic complained that Ravel’s playing of the work was “unutterably slow.” Obviously tempo is relative.

Ravel dedicated the Pavane to his patron Winnaretta Singer, Princesse Edmond de Polignac and heir to the Singer sewing machine fortune. She also commissioned works from other young composers of the generation, which included Igor Stravinsky, Erik Satie, Darius Milhaud, Francis Poulenc, Manuel de Falla and Kurt Weill.

Ravel was a master orchestrator, and his orchestral version is in lush colours of a symphony orchestra that our Camerata currently does not have the resources to perform, opting therefore for an arrangement for strings and flutes.

When Ravel mentioned Velázquez, he was of course referring to the series of portraits that the great Spanish painter Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez (1599-1660), the leading artist in the Spanish royal court, had painted of the Infanta (royal princess) Margarita Teresa (1651-1673), daughter of Philip IV of Spain (who also reigned over Portugal and her dominions as Philip III of Portugal) during much of her tragically short life. One of these paintings, Las Meninas, which hangs at Madrid’s Museo del Prado, is considered Velázquez’ magnum opus. Margarita Teresa also features in Pablo Picasso’s interpretations of Velázquez’ Las Meninas, now in the Las Meninas room of the Museu Picasso in Barcelona.

Diego Velázquez Infanta

The Infanta was married at 15 to her much older uncle, her mother’s brother Leopold I of Austria. Despite the great difference in their ages, the marriage was a happy one, especially because the couple shared a love of theatre and music. It is said that even after they were wed, she addressed him as her uncle, and he used her nickname ‘Gretl’.

Her life was not an easy one. In keeping with the austere etiquette of the Spanish royal court , mundane pleasures such as reading or even looking out of a window, laughing or smiling or displaying her feet or footwear in public were forbidden.

Her dismal obstetric history (numerous miscarriages and four births of which only one child survived to adulthood) progressively weakened her, leading to her death in childbirth at just 21. Obviously continuous inbreeding within the Spanish Habsburg dynasty that she belonged to, contributed to this.

One of her prize jewels, the 36-carat Wittelsbach Diamond, was auctioned at Christie’s in 2008 for $24.3 million, the highest price ever for a diamond sold at auction. The diamond was obtained from India, either from Hyderabad or Bihar, as was customary for European royal families, and is one of the few remaining valuable Indian diamonds, in the league of the Kohinoor, Régent, Orlov and Hope diamonds.

Ravel’s ‘Pavane for a Dead Princess’ features in the 2012 Batman film ‘The Dark Knight Rises’, in Batman’s comeback-from-retirement scene at a charity ball, and is a clever musical means of foretelling the revelation of Miranda Tate as villain Ra’s al Ghul’s daughter (‘infanta’) Talia al Ghul. The ‘Dead Princess’ rises from oblivion to threaten the safety of Gotham City.

An edited version of this article was published on 17 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Three Paths to Peace

Composers draw inspiration from their environment and their circumstances. And since human conflict seems to unfortunately be part of the human experience through history, the horrors of war, tyranny and oppression have ignited the creative spark in composers as well. Josef Haydn’s Missa in tempore belli (Mass in time of War) also known as Paukenmesse (Kettledrum Mass) is believed by scholars to express anti-war sentiment (although there is no clear indication from Haydn that this was his intention) from the ‘unsettled nature’ of the music quite atypical of the composer. Nearer our time, Dmitri Shostakovich, Benjamin Britten, Alban Berg, Witold Lutoslawski, Michael Tippett have all worn their pacifist hearts on their sleeves in their music.

Polish composer Witold Lutoslawski (1913-1994) lived through the German occupation of Warsaw during World War II, forming a piano duo with his friend and fellow composer Andrzej Panufnik (1914-1991) and playing in cafés there. Panufnik composed several illegal Songs of Underground Resistance, especially “Warsaw Children” which became very popular. Other compositions of his with pacificism at their core include Tragic Overture, Symphony of Peace and its revised version Sinfonia Elegiaca dedicated to those who perished in World War II; and Katyń Epitaph, a commemoration of the 22,000 victims of the Katyń Forest massacre in 1940. This being Panufnik’s centenary year, a number of celebratory events and concerts are being held across the world.

It is perhaps not surprising that his daughter Roxanna Panufnik (b. 1968) should inherit a similar commitment and passion for peace.

In 2004, she wrote a violin concerto for Daniel Hope called “Abraham”, which explored the story from Genesis 22, the story of Abraham and Isaac. The story is common to Christian, Jewish and Islamic faiths and her composition incorporated music elements from the three faiths.

Commissioned by the World Orchestra for Peace to write music for their concert in 2008, she sent them a recording of “Abraham” which they loved. “They asked me to make an orchestral prelude out of it which included making it two-thirds of the length and also assimilating the solo violin part into the rest of the orchestra.”

The result was “Three Paths to Peace”, which received its European premiere last month at the BBC Proms 2014 at the Royal Albert Hall London, and performed again by the World Orchestra for Peace and Valery Gergiev.

In an interview to the BBC last month, Ms Panufnik explained, “It opens with a quasi-Islamic ‘prayer’. I took advice from various mullahs, and used the rhythm of the words, the quarter-tones, the lovely elaborate ornamentation of them, and the way it moves. With the Jewish music, I’ve used a traditional prayer [Ashkenazi Jewish chant] and Shofar horn calls. And then with the Christian music, I’ve used church bells and there’s plainsong as well. So the idea is that at the last minute as Abraham is about to kill his son [Isaac], there is a reprieve, the angel coming down to stop him. And this leads to the last section of the piece which combines all these different musical elements from all the three faiths in a joyous and harmonious conclusion.”

The work also uses Sufi drum patterns. Panufnik spent much time on research to avoid any chance of inadvertently offending any faith. Muslim clerics advised her to listen to actual calls to prayer to derive inspiration for her music. She listened to calls to prayer in the United Kingdom and from Pakistan and Turkey and took musical elements from these sources.

Sacrifice_of_Isaac-Caravaggio_(c._1603)

At a time when the cradle of all three faiths in the Middle East is being torn apart yet again by bombardment, with children the most vulnerable casualties, such music could not have greater urgency and resonance.

For those interested in listening to “Three Paths to Peace”, it is still available to hear for a few more weeks on internet radio at this link: http://bbc.in/1nbB40C.

Panufnik’s interest in faith has found expression in other compositions too, notably her Westminster Mass (1997), Magnificat (2012), Nunc Dimittus (2012) and most recently her Tallinn Mass –Dance of Life, with our own soprano Patricia Rozario singing the part of Life itself.

A word or two about the World Orchestra of Peace. It was created in 1995 by noted conductor Sir George Solti to affirm, as he described it, ‘the unique strength of music as an ambassador for peace’.

It is an expression of harmony on several levels. It comes into existence for special occasions, attracting musicians from top-notch orchestras and ensembles all over the world, many of them concertmasters and section leaders. Status becomes a secondary issue however, with “the first being last and the last first” as their seating positions rotate, and they take turns leading. Even a simple matter of tuning becomes an issue, as orchestras around the world play at different pitches. None of the musicians in the World Orchestra for Peace draw a salary, but the fact that they keep returning to it is testimony to the value they attach to the cause of peace through their music.

In an interview to the BBC last month, the orchestra director Charles Kaye said, “They listen to each other from the first bar, in 10 minutes of coming together. It doesn’t matter what is happening in their countries. There’s conflict and war all over the place. That’s put aside, and they make music as best as they can, and the way they do it is by communicating with each other, listening to each other.”

“In the orchestra, we have one daughter of a man who fought and was medalled in WW I; four grandchildren of similar people whose lives were totally affected by WW I, and any number of great-grandchildren. But each of them comes to make music together and, a hundred years later, I hope that we’re doing something special to tell everyone ‘Let’s make beautiful music together for peace, rather than war.’”

“We are representing the whole world to the highest level of the profession. We can’t do more than set an example. And that’s why, as long as I can bring them back together, for special occasions, like this year, I’m very pleased, because, we keep reminding the world that musicians care about peace, and we’re doing our bit.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 10 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Dido & Aeneas: In Love’s Delights a Precious Hour

A significant milestone was crossed in operatic history on the Indian subcontinent with the four-city tour of Giving Voice Society’s production of Henry Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’. The cast, chorus, conductor, and the production team (director, music director, choreographers, set fabricator, costume designer, stage manager and production manager) were all Indian, as were three of the five musicians. The opera was fully staged in all locations but one (Pune). But the most important selling point of it all was the high quality of sound attained by the singers and musicians, the like of which had never before been produced by Indians, most of them home-grown and trained right here in India. It was the first time to my knowledge that a three-act opera had been taken on tour in India.

The opera was preceded by a half-hour of songs, also by Purcell, and sung in turn by members of the cast and chorus; solos, duets and trios accompanied by Mark Troop at the piano. They provided an opportunity for individual members of the troupe to showcase their ability. ‘Sound the Trumpet’ is cleverly written to suggest the qualities of a pair of trumpets, with a gradual swell of sound first in tandem and then the lines moving together but an interval of a third apart, trilling joyfully along the way. ‘What can we poor females do’ and ‘Man is for the Woman made’ stood out for their flirtatious humour.

Purcell’s stately three-act chamber opera ‘Dido and ‘Aeneas’ was effectively staged, with a minimalist set: three glass tanks representing Earth, Fire and Water. The sea is an important setting to the plot, as Aeneas arrives by ship, and at the end sets sail for Italy to found what would eventually become the city of Rome and the Roman Empire. The wooden backdrop also served as reflecting panels to transmit the sound back to the audience. The use of three-legged stools for the cast was handled very efficiently, but seemed a little fussy as they were lifted and replaced by the individual members.

The string quartet (with Troop at the ‘harpischord’, a Yamaha Clavinova) produced a really magnificent, delicate sound, despite intonation issues in the opening bars of the prelude to the first act. Two of the players (Raja Halder, first violin; Steffan Rees, cello) are seasoned players from the London professional circuit. Halder is an orchestral musician in England’s top orchestras (London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields), and Rees is a highly accomplished chamber musician in ensembles of the same calibre. The other two musicians (Aditya Mukherji, second violin; Omprakash Roy, viola) on the other hand do not have this level of experience. But the work put in by the quartet and Troop certainly yielded fruit.

The cast were well-chosen. Ramya Roy’s Dido was sung with even control across the range, and her presence well reflected the tragic queen’s torment and eventual acceptance of her fate. Aeneas is not an easy dramatic role to play, as the emotions change so quickly during the 50-minute opera. But Oscar Castellino has by now had some experience treading the boards in England, and handled this very well. The decision to cast the Sorceress as Sorcerer was a very good one, and baritone Rahul Bharadwaj was in his diabolical element. He said to me in a stage whisper backstage after the performance, “I won!” as all the Sorcerer’s plots and curses (with more than a little help from his evil friends, the Witches) bring the story to its inevitable tragic conclusion. And Bharadwaj ‘won’ in more than ways as well. The Destruction scene was the most compelling and abiding scene of the production. Tanisha Herbert’s Belinda was a dutiful lady-in-waiting, even shedding real tears at Dido’s deathbed at the finale.

Dido Goa concert

The real ‘winners’ however were the entire chorus. They blended so well, and the dynamic contrasts came through beautifully, lending much dramatic effect to their lyrics.

Josias Priest (in whose School for Girls in London the opera was first performed in the summer of 1688) was a master dancer, so dances probably were an important component of the premiere of Dido and Aeneas as well. The dances in this production certainly helped lighten the mood of the plot line, strewn as it is with sorcery, fallen heroes and broken hearts.

All in all, this was an invigorating reading of Dido and Aeneas by Giving Voice Society, and we are privileged that Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop included Goa in its concert tour. This is the first time a complete, fully-staged opera performance of this exceptional quality has ever graced the Goan stage. It is a shame that there were just two singers from Goa (Melwyn Noronha and Preethi Coutinho) in this production. One hopes that there will be more participation from Goa in future Giving Voice projects.

The most heartwarming aspect was the spontaneous outpouring of interest and enthusiasm from the general public in Goa. Who says heavy rains are a deterrent to concertgoers? Passes vanished with incredible speed in the run-up to the concert evening.

The Kala Academy indoor auditorium is not a flattering concert venue to perform in, at least in terms of its acoustic quality. It has been the experience of many performers that they are not able to hear each other clearly (or sometimes not at all) even on the same stage. The sound carries across to the audience in the most un-uniform manner, with the experience of someone seated in the middle very different from other in the front, or from left to right, etc. And it is a very dry, non-resonant acoustic.

So it is vital to have a sound check before the concert. It is to the credit of the music directors (Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop) and conductor (Parvesh Java) that they got such well-shaped co-ordination from the singers on stage and the musicians in the pit. Would it have been even better if the musicians had been on the same level, stage left or right? Perhaps.

Nevertheless, it still underscores the crying need for a complete, expert acoustic overhaul of the Dinanath Mangueshkar auditorium if we really seriously want to take classical music and the concert experience to an even higher level.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 12 August 2014)

Last month in Music History: Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas

Henry Purcell (1659-1695) is considered one of England’s greatest composers, with no other native-born composer quite approaching his fame until Edward Elgar. His first opera and only all-sung dramatic work Dido and Aeneas is one of the earliest English operas and one of Purcell’s foremost theatrical works.

Its first known performance was at a girl’s school in Chelsea London, run by a Josias Priest, in July 1689. The story is based on Book IV of the ancient Roman poet Virgil’s epic Aeneid. It describes the love of Dido, Queen of Carthage (modern-day Tunisia) for Trojan hero Aeneas, and her desolation upon being eventually abandoned by him.

The opera is believed to be allegorical. The prologue (the music of which is sadly lost) makes mention of the joy of a marriage between two monarchs, possibly a reference to the marriage between William III and Mary II of England. The opera’s libretto (text) is derived from a play The Enchanted Lovers (1678) by Nahum Tate, who served as England’s poet Laureate from 1692 to 1715 and better known for writing the words to the Christmas carol “While Shepherds watched”. In an earlier poem by Tate, he had compared James II to Aeneas, who is led astray by the Sorceress and her witches, (a common metaphor for Roman Catholicism in Protestant England), abandoning Dido, who symbolizes the British people. This probably explains the addition of the Sorceress and witches in the opera, as they do not feature in Virgil’s Aeneid.

Another interpretation is that the opera carries an important moral nugget within it, cautioning young women not to be swayed by suitors’ promises, as men could always betray their trust. A timeless lesson indeed.

The opera was not performed again in Purcell’s lifetime after the Chelsea performances. Its next noted performance was in 1700, as a masque (entertainment within a play) within Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure in London. It then gradually faded into obscurity until 1895, the bicentenary of Purcell’s death when it was performed by students of the Royal College of Music London.

The opera is in three Acts. The first act is set in Dido’s court, with Dido already quite downcast, presumably due to her affection for Aeneas. She fears her love will make her a weak monarch, while her sister and handmaid Belinda and another woman try to reassure her. Aeneas makes an entrance, is at first snubbed, but Dido accepts his marriage proposal.

In the second act, scene one, we are transported to the cave of the Sorceress (sometimes depicted as Sorcerer in an example of gender equality for villains) who with her witches plots and schemes the ruin of Carthage and of Dido. Scene two moves the action to a forest grove where Dido and Aeneas are out hunting. Here Aeneas is tricked by the Sorceress’ elf disguised as Mercury into believing that the gods have commanded him to set sail at once for Italy, to create a new Troy on Latin soil. He is heartbroken at having to leave Dido, but complies.

Act Three opens at the harbor in Carthage, where the Trojan fleet is ready to depart. The Sorceress has a cunning plan to do away with Aeneas on the high seas.

Back in the palace, Dido and Belinda have returned from the hunt, shellshocked by Aeneas’ abrupt disappearance. Aeneas appears and tries to explain himself, but Dido now urges him to leave. Dido sings her last aria, famously known as Dido’s Lament “When I am laid in Earth”, before she dies. The chorus brings the opera to a close, commanding “cupids to scatter roses on her tomb, soft and gentle as her heart. Keep here your watch, and never never never part.”

Purcell precedes both Gluck and Handel in his emphasis of the text over music, and “word painting”, the use of musical tools to enhance the meaning of the text. He believed that “as poetry is the harmony of words, so music is that of notes; and as poetry is a rise above prose and oratory, so is music the exaltation of poetry”.

He uses melismas (several notes of music on the same syllable) for example to ‘paint’ the word ‘storm’ in Dido’s recitative ”Whence could so much virtue spring”, to conjure up its impression; and the word ‘soft’ is ‘coloured’ by a sighing, descending semitone.

Dido’s Lament “When I am laid in Earth” is considered the masterpiece of the opera, and is included in many textbooks of classical music on account of its excellent use of the passus duriusculus (melodic fragment spanning an interval of a perfect fourth, in chromatic steps) in the ground bass. Purcell largely uses major keys to evoke happiness, and minor keys for sadness. Dido’s Lament is in the key of G minor, a tonality also exploited by Mozart for emotions of sadness and tragedy. Purcell uses word painting here too. A descending chromatic line is commonly understood to depict sighing, sobbing, a ‘lamentation’. The word ‘laid’ is painted by this descending line, connoting agony and death. The words ‘darkness’ and ‘death’ in the opening recitative secco “Thy hand, Belinda” preceding Dido’s Lament also get this treatment.

Giving Voice Society headed by Patricia Rozario and Mark Troop present a fully-staged performance of Dido and Aeneas at the Kala Academy on 4 August 2014 at 7 pm. Free limited passes at Furtados Music stores in Panjim and Margão.

(An edited version of this article was published on 3 August 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

An all-Indian operatic first

Mark Troop was in Goa recently as part of Goa University’s Visiting Research Professors’ Programme, the Anthony Gonsalves Chair for Western Music. He spoke in an interview to the Navhind Times about the lecture series and about Giving Voice Society’s opera production ‘Dido and Aeneas.’

This is the first session of your lecture series at the Goa University. How has it been?

It’s been great! The way they’ve set it up has been very good. The response has been quite encouraging, especially from the university students who took the one-credit course. And the University’s idea of setting up a music department is a very good one.

Tell us a little about the ‘Giving Voice to India’ project and Giving Voice Society.

One thing my wife Patricia Rozario and I noticed over the many years of coming to India to her family was that the whole area of vocal training needed much improvement.

We first began work in August 2009, to raise the standard of western classical singing, both art song and opera, in India. The project essentially implements a singing course, in line with the format of international singing academies, during which Patricia and I work with Indian singers on various skills such as vocal technique, musical style and interpretation, foreign language skills and score-reading skills.

We have taught around 30 courses so far, each usually five days long, and have worked with over 100 students in several Indian cities (Mumbai, Goa, Delhi, Pune, Ahmedabad.

We have also trained local singers who demonstrate a sound understanding of the principles, to carry on our teaching work in between courses and in order to provide continuous learning opportunities to singers in India.

Giving Voice Society was formed in 2012 to provide a support structure for the project and to augment its impact. One of the key objectives of the Society is to create performance opportunities for Indians who have proved worthy of the stage. In July 2013, singers of Giving Voice performed Benjamin Britten’s operetta ‘The Little Sweep’ for a full house at the Con Brio Festival at the NCPA, Mumbai. This was a landmark performance because it was the first time an opera was performed with a cast comprising entirely of Indians.

And this year you take Purcell’s ‘Dido and Aeneas’ on tour?

Yes, this year the Society brings fully-staged performances of Henry Purcell’s opera ‘Dido & Aeneas’ to some of the most important cities for western classical music in India: Mumbai, Pune, Goa and Delhi, once again with an all-Indian cast. Not just that, but it is an all-Indian production as well. The conductor and director are Indian, and the lighting, design, and stage manager are Indian as well. Almost all the musicians are Indian too. This is a significant step for operatic history in India.

The opera is a delight. It is about an hour long, and in English. In fact it is the first great opera in the repertory in the English language.

The opera plot is based on an episode in Virgil’s timeless epic The Aeneid, the mythical story of a queen, a soldier and the illicit love that tore them apart.

The Goa performance of the fully-staged opera will be at the Kala Academy on 4 August 2014 at 7 pm.

(Free limited passes available at Furtados Music stores in Panjim and Margão)

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times Goa India on 30 July 2014)

This month in Music History: Tercentenary of Christoph Willibald Gluck

Gluck

This month marks the tercentenary of Christoph Willibald Ritter von Gluck (2 July 1714 -15 November 1787), opera composer of the early Classical period, and a great reformer and contributor to the development of opera as an art form.

He was born in a little town, Erasbach in modern-day Bavaria, to a long line of foresters. His early years are not clearly documented. In 1717, the family moved to Bohemia, where he was introduced to music through the church choir. He began studying logic and mathematics (but failed to complete the degrees) in 1731 at the University of Prague, where both Italian opera and oratorio thrived. In 1737, he was in Milan, studying “practical knowledge of all the instruments” under Giovanni Battista Sammartini, and generally immersing himself in Milan’s vibrant opera scene, especially in one of its emerging opera houses, the Teatro Regio Ducal, where his first opera Artaserse was performed in 1741. It was performed at the Milanese Carnival in 1742 to much acclaim, and subsequently Gluck wrote an opera for each of the next four Carnivals, often with renowned castrato Giovanni Carestini in the lead roles. He wrote operas for other cities (Turin, Venice) as well.

In 1745, he travelled to London to take up the post of house composer at the King’s Theatre. Unfortunately, the theatre remained closed for most of his time there, due to the Jacobite Rebellion. But some good did come of his visit, as he became familiar with Handel, who he acknowledged as a great influence on his style. Handel’s remark “Gluck knows no more of contrappunto (counterpoint) than my cook” is often interpreted as a putdown, but Handel’s cook was Gustavus Waltz, a fine singer and contrapuntist, so the comment might not have been meant as such an insult.

Gluck’s travels took him to Dresden, Vienna, Copenhagen, Paris, Rome and Prague among other destinations. In 1756, he was awarded the Order of the Golden Spur by Pope Benedict XIV. He finally settled in Vienna, where he became Kapellmeister.

He is remembered for his great contribution to opera reform, and the influence he had on composers that followed him, from Salieri and Mozart to Berlioz to Weber to Wagner.

Gluck felt that both of the main Italian operatic genres (opera buffa and opera seria; ie comic and ‘serious’ opera) had veered too far off course. In his view they had become tired, stereotyped, dull, superficial and ossified. He wished opera to regain its focus on drama and feeling, and make the text matter as much as the music. He wished also to do away with recitativo secco (dry recitative accompanied only by harpsichord) which crippled the flow. This was a radical idea, and would pave the way for the through-composed operas of Puccini and the grandiose, larger-than-life music dramas of Wagner. Through the reforms, Baroque opera was ‘cleansed of much of its fat’, and Italian opera took on the spirit of French opera.

Orfeo ed Euridice (1761) is widely considered the first of his ‘reform’ operas and one of his major works. Gluck explained himself at the writing of his next ‘reform’ opera Alceste (1767): “I have striven to restrict music to its true office of serving poetry by means of expression and by following the situations of the story, without interrupting the action or stifling it with a useless superfluity of ornaments”.

Gluck was able to spread his ideas to France. His former pupil Marie Antoinette had in 1770 married the future King Louis XVI. Under her patronage he signed a contract for his operas to be staged at the Paris Opera. The première of his opera Iphigénie en Aulide (1774) was hugely controversial, with the city sharply divided into ‘Gluckists’ and ‘Piccinnists’ after the famed Italian composer Niccolò Piccinni. Unhappy with the progress of rehearsals, Gluck postponed the performance, despite the fact that the King and Queen were due to attend. This and several other actions by him sorely tried the patience of the monarchy, behavior that might have lost ordinary mortals their head. To say the Gluck took opera seriously is a gross understatement.

Gluck’s health was plagued by a series of strokes through his mature years, and died of one in Vienna in 1787.

His musical legacy includes around 35 complete full-length opera, and about a dozen shorter operas and operatic introductions, and several ballets, trio sonatas and other instrumental and choral works. He left behind in Paris a lively school of disciples, which included Salieri, Sacchini, Cherubini, Méhul and Spontini, and who would go on to dominate the French stage during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic years. Gluck’s music had a deep influence on Mozart, particularly in the writing of his opera Idomeneo and the Masonic passages in Die Zauberflöte (The Magic Flute). The influence extends to Rossini in his serious operas, to Berlioz in his opera Les Troyens, and to Wagner’s own quest for the high moral ground in opera.

Although Gluck wrote no operas in German, his most celebrated work Orfeo ed Euridice in particular was deeply inspiring for German opera. Variations on its plot (the subterranean rescue mission in which the hero must control or conceal his emotion) emerge in Mozart’s Die Zauberflöte, Beethoven’s Fidelio and Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

Although the Gluck milestone is regrettably not being celebrated in opera houses around the world with as much fuss as the recent bicentenaries of Verdi and Wagner or the centenary of Britten, Gluck’s place in music history as the radical reformer of 18th-century opera is secure.

(An edited version of this article was published on 27 July 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Hands on Hearts at the FIFA World Cup

FIFA World Cup 2014 has been by far the most exciting one I have ever watched. One of the pleasant fringe-benefits has been listening to the national anthems of the participating countries. For various reasons, most of us are quite well acquainted with the anthems of Portugal, the United Kingdom, the USA, France and Germany. But so many others, especially from Asia, Africa Central and South America, are not heard so often. A lot of them are really quite beautiful.

Hands on hearts

I was particularly taken by the Himnos Nacionales of Central and South America. It is striking to note how many of them sound like the sort of music that Rossini, Donizetti or even Verdi would have written as an operatic overture, aria or chorus.

Hands on hearts 3

Let’s take host country Brazil for starters. The Hino Nacional Brasileiro was composed by Francisco Manuel da Silva (1795-1865) in 1831, a few years after Brazil’s declaration of Independence from the United Kingdom of Portugal, Brazil and the Algarves. Unsurprisingly, Silva was also an operatic composer, with one major work ‘O prestigio da Lei’ (The Prestige of Law) to his name. He was also one of the founders of Imperial Academia de Música e Ópera Nacional (National Imperial Music and Opera Academy), of the Rio de Janeiro Philharmonic, and of the precursor of today’s Escola de Música da Universidade Federal do Rio de Janeiro. Brazil laid down the foundations of music pedagogy and performance right at the very beginning of their existence.

The Hino Nacional is certainly inspired by Italian comic opera, with a Rossinian introduction (The Barber of Seville comes to mind) before the lyrics begin, with references to the Ipiranga, the stream from which Dom Pedro I proclaimed the independence of Brazil. It is two stanzas long, and with the intervening instrumental interludes make the anthem’s performance time twice as long as our Jana Gana Mana.

Even more reminiscent of Italian bel canto opera, and my favourite of the lot is the Himno Nacional de Uruguay. The anthem’s theme is supposedly ‘inspired’ by the Prologue of the opera Lucrezia Borgia by Gaetano Donizetti (1797-1848). Its introductory preamble is a mini-overture, and over a whole minute long. When fully performed, it is the longest national anthem, with 105 bars of music and lasting six minutes. It was composed by Hungarian-born émigré Debály Ferenc Jószef, whose name was Latinised to Francisco José Debali (1791-1859).

Controversy still surrounds the origin of the music of Paraguay’s national anthem, which bears quite some similarity to Himno Nacional de Uruguay. It is believed at least by some that Debali was the original composer (but not credited at that time, due to his difficulty in understanding Spanish!), and that it was later modified. The lyrics for both the Uruguayan and the Paraguayan anthems were written by Francisco Acuña de Figueroa, Uruguayan poet and writer.

The music to Himno Nacional Mexicano was written by Spanish composer Jaime Nunó Roca (1824-1908), who had studied under Italian opera composer Saverio Mercadante (1795-1870), and a contemporary of Donizetti, Rossini, Bellini and Verdi. His 58 operas (one of which interestingly is “Il Vascello de Gama”, on the life of Vasco da Gama) have faded into obscurity. However Mercadante’s writing served as an antecedent to the now-famous dramatic ‘Verdi baritone’ role. It is perhaps not surprising therefore that an anthem written by his pupil Nunó should sound so Verdian, with segments highly suggestive of the Triumphal March from Aida. After the overthrow of his friend the President of Mexico (under whose tenure the anthem was commissioned from him), Nunó emigrated to the US, where he found work as a conductor and opera director. Although he died in New York, his remains were exhumed and interred in the Rotonda delos Hombres Ilustres (Rotunda of Illustrious Men) in Mexico City, where they remain. The original anthem had a staggering ten stanzas interspersed by a chorus. Even though it is usually shortened to include just stanzas 1, 5, 6 and 10, it is still rather long. The version we heard at the World Cup had just the chorus, first stanza and the chorus.

Himno Nacional de Chile was composed by Ramón Carnicer (1789-1855), a Catalan composer and opera conductor who never set foot in Chile. His 13 operas are out of the popular repertory and his fame rests solely on the anthem. General Pinochet reintroduced the excised third stanza of the anthem praising the armed forces and the police (surprise, surprise) which was removed again after his ouster.

Himno Nacional de la República de Colombia (titled “İOh Gloria Inmarcesible!” or “Oh Unfading glory!”) has as its lyrics a poem by former four-time Colombian president Rafael Núñez and set to music by Italian-born composer Oreste Sindici (1828-1904) who arrived in Bogotá as tenor in an opera company and never left. The operatic influence is clear from its almost von Suppé-esque trumpet fanfare beginning.

The Costa Rican national anthem has its music composed by Manuel Maria Gutiérrez Flores (1829-1887), regarded then as the country’s foremost musician. It is said that when he modestly declined the order to write the music for the anthem, he was thrown into prison and told he would not be released until a usable piece of music had been composed by him! Whether the story is true or not, it is a rousing if somewhat conventional labour of national pride.

The music to Himno Nacional Argentino was set by Spanish composer Blas Parera ((1777-1840), who spent some of his life in Buenos Aires. He was a music teacher, and the piece betrays both his acquaintance with the sonata form of Haydn and Mozart and with contemporary Italian opera.

(An edited version of this article was published on 20 July 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Spot On In the Spotlight: “And the Magic of their Singing Cast its Spell”Enter a post title

When it comes to a cappella (literally “in the manner of the church/chapel” but meaning “unaccompanied by instruments” in the modern sense) singing especially of the “barbershop” style of music, the Americans are hard to beat. The tradition of the Whiffenpoofs of Yale, where senior male students sing together for a year, is almost as old as the quintessentially American art form of barbershop music itself.

We got a sizzling slice of barbershop heaven from the Whiffenpoofs of Yale 2014 at Calangute last Friday. Their restless energy was palpable as they bounded into the room and onto the stage singing two folk songs, one Czech (“Aj Lučka, Lučka Široká”), and the other Swedish (“Helan Går”). The medley has apparently been a tradition in the group for many years. Eastern Europe in particular has a rich treasure trove of repertoire for male voice choirs.

The Whiffenpoofs then sang a whole potpourri, from the barbershop, traditional folk, gospel and the popular repertoire: “I’ll be Seeing You” (Fain/Kahal, arr. Beck 1991); “Don’t Let the Sun Go Down on Me” (Elton John/John Bernie Taupin, arr. Goldsmith 2014); “The Boxer” (Paul Simon, arr. Mulligan 2011); the Manhattan Transfer classic “Operator” (Spivery, arr. Ishiguri 2010); Too Darn Hot (Cole Porter, arr. Priestley 1977); the American indie folk band Bon Iver’s signature song “Skinny Love” (Vernon, arr. Lloyd 2012); the traditional Irish song “Down by the Salley Gardens (arr. Kelley 1986); the evergreen gospel hymn “When the Saints Go Marching In” (arr. Lieblich/Ishiguri 2010); ending with their own anthem “the Whiffenpoof Song” (Rudyard Kipling/Galloway/Minnegerode/Pomeroy/2010), and encoring with “Just Haven’t Met You Yet” (Michael Bublé, Chang, Foster-Gilles, arr. Mulligan/Ishiguri 2010).

The Whiffenpoofs embodied the very essence of barbershop singing, singing a 40-minute programme from memory, skillfully negotiating the complex harmonies of jazz chord progressions, with spot-on collective intonation with seeming ease, ebbing and swelling at the behest of their leader at the left of their semi-circle, but keeping their irrepressible sense of humour through it all. The only time the intonation seemed to slip just a little was during “Salley Gardens”.

It is difficult to single out particular songs for mention, as all of them were so polished. Their programme fittingly included a work by the great composer/songwriter Cole Porter (1891-1964) who was himself one of the earliest Whiffenpoofs. The Whiffenpoof experience quite possibly contributed to influencing his life path and his style and genre of composition. In that sense, the Whiffenpoofs have through him a music legacy far beyond the ensemble.

The Whiffenpoof Song is also the stuff of legend, with its chorus derived from Kipling’s poem “Gentlemen Rankers” and has been covered by the likes of Louis Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Perry Como and Elvis Presley.

It was instructive just to watch how the Whiffenpoofs wove their magic web. The visual element adds so much to the experience, the overall “razzmatazz”. They were in their tuxedo “penguin suits” down to their “jazz hands” white gloves, which they would have to take off if the song demanded clapping of hands or the snapping of fingers. It all happened with practised slickness and interspersed with glib comedy routines.

They’ve probably said and acted out their punny lines to different audiences a thousand times, but they still manage to make it all seem spontaneous and fresh. A particularly nice touch was the holding aloft of their spectacles by two Whiffenpoofs as the ensemble sang the line “glasses raised on high” in the Whiffenpoof Song.

Goa was the twenty-second pit stop and India the eighteenth country on their punishing 30-country world tour spanning three months. It can’t be easy, having to sing almost daily in a different venue in another part of the world, with virtually no off-days. They have no substitutes in the entourage. All fourteen are on every night. Perhaps “Another Suitcase in Another Hall” also ought to feature in their programme. It would be apt.

The group is everything a university choir ought to be, comprised entirely of its students, with new dynamism injected into it each year by each successive senior batch. Despite their busy and diverse academic schedules, they are able to find the time to meet regularly round the year to make music of the highest calibre.

I was told by one of the singers, Ben Lewis, that each batch of Whiffenpoofs handpicks the next batch. The fourteen members of the Yale Whiffenpoofs 2015, including their leader, have already been anointed.

The evening ended all too quickly, perhaps because the Whiffenpoofs had a repeat show in the same venue exactly an hour after the first. But even with two back-to-back shows, they must have sung at the very most to a total audience of a hundred and twenty. A class act like this really ought to have been staged in a bigger venue, where it would have been more accessible and at more affordable rates. The high ticket prices kept at bay many music lovers, which is a crying shame.

That said, and to paraphrase a line from the Whiffenpoof Song, “the magic of their singing cast its spell”. I was happy to be among the bewitched few.

(An edited version of this article was published in the Navhind Times Goa India on 22 July 2014)

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