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.

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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)

It’s All about the Score: Football-mad Musicians

Classical music has the stereotype of being dainty and genteel, and by extension one might not expect composers and musicians to show much interest in sweaty pursuits like The Beautiful Game.

But ever since the modern version of the game evolved, some of classical music’s finest have been unable to take their eyes off the ball.

Heading the line-up, as it were, is the English composer Edward Elgar (1857-1934). He was a lifelong supporter of the Wolverhampton Wanderers. He would regularly cycle for miles through the countryside from Malvern to Wolverhampton to watch their home games in the company of his lady friend Dorabella ‘Dora’ Penny, seventeen years his junior and immortalized in the tenth of his famous Enigma Variations. Elgar had an eye for the ladies, so it is possible that she was his motivation as much as the game. Be that as it may, it was discovered in the late 1990s that Elgar scored the music for the first-ever football terrace chant “He Banged the Leather for Goal” after the Wolves striker Billy Malpass scored against Stoke in 1898. Apparently he got the title of the chant off a match report! It has fallen out of use, although his ‘Nimrod’ from the Enigma Variations still gets belted out by football fans everywhere.

Jostling for top position with Elgar is Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975), possibly the only famous composer to be a qualified football referee. His love of the game was legendary. He described it as ‘the ballet of the masses’. He went to the extent of actually writing a ballet ‘The Golden Age’, about a football team that falls prey to match-fixing and imprisonment in a decadent Western city, with a musical football match written into the second act. In the words of Soviet writer Maxim Gorki, Shostakovich was “a rabid fan… He comported himself like a little boy, leapt up, screamed and gesticulated at matches”.

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(Shostakovich, bespectacled in the foreground in both pictures)

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He supported the team Zenit Leningrad, and would cut short his composing retreats in the countryside just to watch the home matches. His friend Isaak Glikman relates how he would even invite the whole team to his house, ply them with alcohol, and play the piano for them.

It is even believed that football was the last thing on his mind before he died. He was working on his Viola Sonata and before he retired, he asked to be wakened to watch a match on television, but died in his sleep.

The famous Gloria by Francis Poulenc ((1899-1963) was partly inspired by his recollection of seeing “some solemn-looking Benedictine monks that I saw playing football one day”.

American composer Charles Ives (1874-1954) captained a football team in college, while Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) was an all-round sportsman with a love of sport that included football, and it was said that “he kicked a pretty corner”.

Among contemporary composers, Mark-Anthony Turnage (b. 1960) is an avid Arsenal supporter. In 1999, he wrote a football-themed opera “The Silver Tassle” about a footballer injured during the First World War. He also concealed a distorted version of the football chant ‘Olé Olé Olé’ in his 1991 orchestral composition ‘Momentum’.

Benedict Mason (b. 1954) has also written a football opera “Playing Away” about the brilliant footballer Terry Bond.

Michael Nyman (b. 1944) and James MacMillan (b. 1959, and who recently visited Mumbai with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra) support the Queen’s Park Rangers and Celtic respectively. Nyman wrote a football-inspired minimalist work called “Beckham Crosses, Nyman Scores” during the 2002 World Cup; and “The Final Score” (accompanying a film of the same name and dedicated to QPR) and a whole album of football-inspired music called “After Extra Time” which includes the funeral dirge ‘Memorial’ as a tribute to Juventus fans killed at the Heysel stadium tragedy in 1985.

David Golightly is a great supporter of Middlesbrough FC; his Symphony No. 1 is the first-ever symphony dedicated not only to a football club and its chairman (Steve Gibson), but is also an “orchestral portrait of the game”, encompassing the fluctuating fortunes of his beloved team.

Finnish composer and football fanatic Peter Laang has written a pop opera “Learning to Shout” highlighting the problems of racism and violence in football. The idea came to him while watching the 1998 World Cup. In the plot, goddesses sell beer, while football-mad Greeks and Trojans battle it out in the stands.

Compatriot Osmo Tapio Everton Räihälä (b. 1965) is an Everton supporter, and his best-known work is the 2005 orchestral portrait Barlinnie Nine, a tribute to Everton footballer Duncan Ferguson, who once did time at HM Prison Barlinnie. Incredibly, on the night of its premiere, Ferguson scored the only goal of the game at the FA Cup final in Everton’s win over Manchester United!

Last weekend I covered The Three Tenors. Plácido Domingo’s heart beats for Real Madrid. He was invited in 2002 to mark the club’s centenary by singing and recording its new anthem ‘Himno del Centenario’, and is now its ‘honorary member’. Of his tenor companions, Luciano Pavarotti supported Juventus, while José Carreras is loyal to FC Barcelona.

Violin superstar Nigel Kennedy is famed for his abiding love of Aston Villa, with internet pictures of him kitted out and playing a fiddle painted in Villa colours.

And some classical music melodies have become part of football lore in their own right. Last week we saw how Nessun Dorma from Puccini’s Turandot became a football anthem.

Sunderland use Sergei Prokofiev’s ‘Montagues and Capulets’ (or ‘Dance of the Knights’ by its proper title) from his ballet Romeo and Juliet as they come onto the pitch at home games. It is also the theme music from The Apprentice. The BBCC used Gabriel Fauré’s Pavane in its coverage of the 1998 World Cup, bringing it out of relative obscurity into the popular imagination.

Is it surprising that football shares locker rooms with dance, ballet and opera? It’s all there: the footwork, the choreography, the spectacle, high-octane drama. And the score, of course!

(An edited version of this article was published on 13 July 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Twenty-four Years and six World Cup Finals later: When Bel Canto met The Beautiful Game

It was philanthropy that brought together three of the world’s greatest operatic tenors of the time for a unique concert and also brought the world of classical music and sport together. It created a new genre of entertainment, bringing “opera to the masses” in an unprecedented manner and scale.

José Carreras was in the midst of a film version of Puccini’s La Bohème in Paris in 1987 when he was found to have acute lymphoblastic leukemia and given a 10% chance of survival. However, he fought the battle against it, and started a charity, the José Carreras International Leukemia Foundation. The concert was planned to raise money for it, and also for Carreras’ friends and tenor rivals Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti to welcome their “little brother” back to the operatic stage after his ordeal.

It attracted an audience of six thousand at the ancient Baths of Caracalla, Rome on 7 July 1990, the eve of the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final and was broadcast by television to 800 million people. Zubin Mehta conducted the combined orchestral forces of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino and Teatro dell’Opera di Roma. The live recording of the performance, (Three Tenors in Concert) released on the Decca Classics label, won the Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance the following year. It holds the Guinness World Record for the best-selling classical album.

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The Three Tenors rapidly became a World Cup fixture, performing at the 1994 finals in Los Angeles (with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, also conducted by Zubin Mehta, to 56,000 people at the Dodger stadium and 1.3 billion watching on television); at the Champ de Mar under the Eiffel Tower in 1998 (James Levine conducting the Orchestre de Paris); and in Yokohoma in 2002. They also toured the world, performing in stadiums and large arenas. Some concerts raised money for other philanthropic causes, such as the rebuilding of the Teatro La Fenice in Venice, and the Reina Sofia Foundation.

The repertoire at the concerts featured operatic arias, as well as Broadway classics, Neapolitan songs and pop hits. The aria ‘Nessun Dorma’(‘None shall sleep’) from Puccini’s opera Turandot quickly achieved pop status after Pavarotti’s 1972 recording of it was used as the theme song of BBC TV’s coverage of the 1990 World Cup. The title certainly seemed apt for the multitudes around the world staying up to watch the matches live. Although he rarely ever sang the role of Calaf (the character who sings the aria in the opera) on stage, it became Pavarotti’s signature aria and went on to become a football anthem.

The Three Tenors phenomenon has had its share of fans and critics, and the classical music world is polarized about it. Opera purists felt that opera was not “music for the masses” and that the presentation of operatic arias in stadiums and large arenas with heavy amplification often out of the larger context of the plot distorts the appreciation and understanding of opera as a complete art form (Gesamtkunstwerk). Domingo in an interview in 1998 gave a fitting reply: “I understand the complaints of the purists. But I don’t want the purists to go to The Three Tenors”.

The concerts certainly awakened interest in opera and broadened its appeal. Brian Castle-Onion in his book ‘Losing the Plot in Opera” points out the paradox that “while price structures within opera houses increase opera’s elitism and make it less accessible to the masses, phenomena like The Three Tenors and Opera in the Park actually take it to a wider audience”.

The idea of outdoor performances is of course at least as old as ancient Greece. Much later, in 1717, King George I was serenaded while being rowed from Whitehall to Chelsea and back on the Thames by fifty musicians in barges playing George Frideric Handel’s Royal Water Music. And in 1749 the king and a crowd of twelve thousand listened to Handel’s Music for the Royal Fireworks.

But the detractors do have a point, especially when it comes to operatic singing in the outdoors. One could argue that a major aspect of operatic singing is the ability to use one’s natural vocal abilities, devoid of amplification, to reach out to one’s audience. When one attempts it in the outdoors to an audience of tens of thousands, one inevitably has to amplify the voice, and thus necessarily loses subtle nuances, vocal colours and overtones of the notes being sung, and the immediacy and intimacy of the music. There is also the danger of creating a generation of young singers who may not think it necessary to learn to project their voice, or to give it greater ‘body’, because amplification can artificially achieve this for them anyway. One sees this already in Goa, with so many young men and women with really beautiful voices, but who have an overdependency on the mike and are unable to sing effectively when deprived of this crutch.

On the other hand, the wellbeing and very survival of classical music may depend upon making it more accessible to the public, and concerts like the Three Tenors are one way to do that. The Three Tenors phenomenon proved that a good tune sung and played well will always be appreciated, even if it is classical music. Leading opera houses like Covent Garden now annually broadcast their productions live onto large screens in Trafalgar Square and other wide open public places in the summer. Tens of thousands of people who would otherwise never have had a taste of opera are able to hear the opera classics sung by the world’s greatest singers, for free, with a picnic basket for company. Purists may carp but it proves that opera in particular, and classical music in general, are for everyone.

And the floodgates opened that July evening in 1990 in Rome when Bel Canto scored a winner at The Beautiful Game.

(An edited version of this article was published on 6 July 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

In Print: NCPA’s ON Stage magazine, July 2014 issue

The month of May began for us with a concert by the Chamber Singers Pune led by Veronica Krishnayya and hosted by Pro Musica and The Performing Arts Trust Pune at the Kala Academy indoor auditorium Goa. The choir very generously dedicated the concert to Child’s Play India Foundation, and Ms. Krishnayya even suggested that we do a collection at the end of the evening. The concert was entitled ‘The Singing Heart’ and featured folk song-poems from across the world, including Argentina, Hungary, India, Israel, Russia and the United States. The programme was chosen with great thought and sensitivity, to reflect the mood of the writings of award-winning poet Randhir Khare, who narrated the poems himself between the choral works. The imaginative programming was much appreciated by the audience. The highlight was the entire second half of the programme, the Misa Criolla by iconic Argentine pianist and composer Ariel Ramirez, one of the leading figures of Argentine nativism. Misa Criolla celebrates its 50th anniversary this year, and was one of the first Masses to be composed in a ‘modern’ language after the Second Vatican Council, which permitted the celebration of the Roman Catholic Mass in the vernacular as opposed to the Latin.

We were delighted to be informed that Child’s Play India Foundation was among the few institutions in the country chosen to partner in the Commonwealth Music Partnership, which has Queen Elizabeth II as Diamond Jubilee Patron, and Maestro Zubin Mehta as Music Patron. One of our young violin teachers Stefi Cruz was selected to participate in a fully-funded opportunity created as part of the build-up to the Commonwealth Games Glasgow 2014. Stefi will play in the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra in three concert performances in the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow, and St. James’s Palace and the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, London later in June. A flurry of document-chasing followed in its wake to enable Stefi to get her visa in time. Her selection is an exciting opportunity for her, and a great honour for us, and we wish her every success.

Stefi and I also enrolled in the Trinity Laban Summer Music Academy’s specialist course for music teachers, led by Tim Palmer and Karl Lutchmayer at the Mehli Mehta Music Foundation premises in Mumbai. There were participants from Mumbai, Pune, Goa, Surat and Delhi. And the teachers spanned the entire range, from private tutors at their own homes to teachers at schools, music institutions and projects somewhat similar to our own.

Several things stood out during the week of the course. So many of our children at Child’s Play have minimal or no parental involvement, something so crucial to the Suzuki pedagogical philosophy for example. Their parents are daily wage workers and labourers and not able to supervise their practice sessions or even take pride in their progress, although this is slowly beginning to change, with a few parents actually showing up for their children’s concerts.

Commitment to daily practice is a universal struggle for children and teachers across the socio-economic spectrum. But the distractions are so different. For richer children, it can be the internet, video games, eating out and movies and other pursuits. But for our kids it is basic issues like personal space, privacy, lighting that can come in the way.

It was interesting to observe how longer school hours, ever larger doses of homework, extra classes and tuition are eating into practice time and musical advancement across the board. It is a major problem. At El Sistema nucleos in Venezuela, children are able to put in up to four hours after school daily with their instrument, in ensemble playing and individual or group lessons. This is a huge factor in the amazing progress shown by the children there. It is difficult to imagine how one can get our school-children from any social stratum to spend even a quarter of this time every day, given the way our mainstream education system is constructed. Tim Palmer spoke of Malcolm Gladwell’s best-selling book “Outliers: the Story of Success” and the 10,000-Hour Rule based on the famous study by Anders Ericsson which states that it takes roughly ten thousand hours of practice to achieve mastery in any field, including music. Whether you subscribe to the rule or not, there is no denying that one will only get better at an instrument if one works regularly, preferably daily, at it. This is increasingly difficult to achieve in India, and has huge implications for the future of classical music in India.

The Ensemble as a Microcosm of Society

Camerata Child's Play India

Young Goan violinist Stefi Cruz has just done Child’s Play India Foundation and indeed her country proud by representing us, playing violin in the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra last week. The Commonwealth Youth Orchestra and Choir are a creation of the Commonwealth Music Partnership, which has Queen Elizabeth II as Diamond Jubilee Patron, and Maestro Zubin Mehta as Music Patron. The orchestra and choir gave three concert performances in the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow, and St. James’s Palace and the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, London as part of the build-up to the Commonwealth Games Glasgow 2014. 

It is significant that a meeting of nations and people, whether for sport or for anything else, should also be marked by performances by an instrumental and choral ensemble. The orchestra and choir can be viewed as a microcosm of society, and indeed in the wider sense, of the ‘society’ or ‘community’ of nations.

This belief has been the motivation of José Antonio Abreu, founder in 1975 of El Sistema Venezuela, the revolutionary music education programme that is now sweeping across the world. From its beginning, he has pursued the utopian dream in which an orchestra represents the ideal society, and the sooner a child is nurtured in that environment, the better for all. The Venezuelan system provides a place in an orchestra for children, no matter how poor or troubled their backgrounds, throughout the country.

In his 2007 TED Prize lecture, Abreu stated, “In its essence, the orchestra and the choir are much more than artistic structures. They are examples and schools of social life, because to sing and to play together means to intimately coexist toward perfection and excellence, following a strict discipline of organization and coordination in order to seek the harmonic interdependence of voices and instruments. That’s how they build a spirit of solidarity and fraternity among them, develop their self-esteem and foster the ethical and aesthetical values related to the music in all its senses. This is why music is immensely important in the awakening of sensibility, in the forging of values and in the training of youngsters to teach other kids.”

World-renowned Israeli conductor and pianist Daniel Barenboim is co-founder along with the late Palestinian literary scholar Eduard Said of the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra, which brings together young musicians from Israel and the Arab countries to enable intercultural dialogue through the experience of making music. 

In his view, the orchestra is “a group of individuals, each with their own freedom and responsibility to express themselves, but each also having to listen to and engage with others in the group. In addition, the conductor, as a leader to this group, will not be successful unless she or he understands the orchestra, and unless the individuals in the orchestra understand her or him. This relationship is based on shared trust and equality among all members of the group, and is broken when defined by power and individuality alone. When the orchestra plays a composition, no individual is a leading voice at all times, and the music changes and develops, passing through periods of stillness and madness, but what defines a great orchestra is harmony and understanding among its members, and this creates beauty for its listeners. These lessons have the power to reach well beyond the language and study of music, to the spheres of politics, economics, media, education, and culture.”

This is so true. In an orchestra, it doesn’t matter if you are concertmaster doing most of the ‘heavy lifting’, or the timpanist with the occasional crash-bang-wallop or a few turns in the triangle. For a musical work to achieve fruition, every individual contribution is just as necessary as that of the next. The sopranos in a choir are not more or less important than the tenors or basses. Isn’t this how a society should be as well, where the contribution of each citizen is deemed just as valuable, and their rights are equally sacrosanct, regardless of clout or money power? And in the community of nations, the poorest and weakest nation deserves as much respect, dignity and voice as the rich and powerful?

The other parallel is the important virtue of listening. It is not just the audience, or the ‘listener’, who listens. The performance of music is a constant dialogue between the musicians, and their ability to listen attentively and intelligently and respond appropriately is what distinguishes a great performance from a pedestrian one, and a cohesive ensemble from a hastily cobbled group.

Listening in this way also implies empathy. If the cellos and double basses have their noses buried in the score and inadvertently begin to crank up the tempo, oblivious to the difficult passage the poor violin section have to therefore hurry through as a result, it can be disastrous. Similarly, a good conductor will allow a woodwind soloist to literally ‘breathe’ at strategic points in a long soulful legato passage or it will fall to pieces.

Lessons learned in the rehearsal room and the concert hall can easily be extrapolated to life outside these locations. This is the genesis of social change. In the words of my friend and Abreu Fellow Jonathan Andrew Govias: “Social change starts with the individual. All of us want to be needed and respected and valued. We can create that environment within the classroom, the home, or the orchestra – but in the orchestra, most easily, because the art is the higher calling, it inspires while it gratifies, and the rules of the game are simpler and fairer”.

This is certainly a belief held by Gustavo Dudamel, wunderkind conductor and product of El Sistema, and currently at the helm of the Los Angeles Philharmonic: “It [El Sistema’s ensemble experience] has changed not just the lives of the individuals involved – but also of their families, the communities around the children.”

“And it changed because they have access to beauty; to sensitivity; to creativity; and to discipline. We are talking here about the elements of a good citizen.”

(An edited version of this article was published on 29 June 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Classical Music in the Movies: Happy Feet Two and Tosca

Thanks to my 5-year old, I often end up watching snatches of children’s films on television. I happened to be watching a segment of Happy Feet Two with him, when I was startled to hear the familiar sound of a Puccini aria, but with the lyrics changed. Everything else seemed intact, though. Its appearance, right in the middle of the film, seemed incongruous at first.

Happy-feet-Two-Wallpapers-1600x1200-5

But the film is meant to be a musical, and if the soundtrack can feature the rock anthem “We are the Champions” by Queen, then why not a ‘modified’ aria from Tosca by Giacomo Puccini? Director George Miller in an interview called it “a strange confection of different genres, from opera to ballads, rap and R&B classics.”

The context? Erik the penguin (he of the Happy Feet) and his dad Mumble are on their arduous journey back to Emperor-Land when they encounter a precarious ice bridge guarded by an elephant seal (“Brian the Beachmaster”) and his two cubs, who refuse to let the penguins pass. It is at this juncture that the sombre clarinet solo is heard, and Erik first commiserates with his father (“After all you’ve done, you really deserve better”) and then proceeds to reprimand their tormentor and the Fates in general: “Where is the honour when a solemn promise is just a pretty lie, and the mighty mock the courage of the humble?” He ends with the advice his father, who although “just an ordinary penguin” had given him: “You don’t need to be colossal to be a great heart. You don’t need to fly to be awesome!” The track is titled “Erik’s opera”.

Al Jonson, who also lifted the melody of this aria for his song ‘Avalon’ in 1920, was not so lucky. His team was successfully sued by G. Ricordi, the publisher of Puccini’s operas, having to pay up $25,000 in damages and all future royalties of the song.

The Puccini aria is titled “E lucevan le stele” (“And the stars were shining”). It is a romanza, and features in Act Three of his melodramatic opera Tosca, composed in 1900 to an Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa. It is sung by Mario Cavaradossi (tenor), a painter who is in love with the singer and ‘leading lady’ Floria Tosca, while he awaits execution on the ramparts of the famous Castel Sant’Angelo in Rome.

The opera is set in Rome in June 1800. The play La Tosca by Victorien Sardou, from which the libretto is taken, dates it even more precisely, to the “afternoon, evening and early morning of 17 and 18 June 1800”. These were particularly turbulent times for the “Eternal City”, marking the beginning of fourteen years of domination by the legions of Napoleon Bonaparte. Cavaradossi is a republican sympathizer and helps political prisoner Angelotti escape, precipitating his own arrest, interrogation, torture and trial by the sadistic, malevolent Chief of Police, Baron Scarpia.

Cavaradossi is informed that he has but an hour to live. He asks to write a letter to Tosca, and is overcome by memories, when he sings this poignant aria “And the stars were shining”. Desolate in his anguish, he ends “And I die in despair, And I never before loved life so much”.

Mario_cavaradossi,_Opera_Tosca,_Giacomo_Puccini._Inspired_by_the_tenor_Giancarlo_Monsalve.

Puccini insisted on the inclusion of the line “I die in despair” (‘muoio disperato’)and felt that the aria’s many admirers, and indeed posterity itself had triple cause to be indebted to him: for composing the music, for the lyrics, and “for declining expert advice to throw the result in the waste-paper basket”.

The theme of the aria is played tutta forze (as loudly as possible) as Tosca leaps to her death.

Some readers might recall the Doordarshan broadcast in 1992 of the historic filming in Rome of the opera, which was shot and aired live in the locations and at the times mentioned: Act I was aired at noon from the church of Sant’Andrea delle Valle; Act II at 8 pm that evening from the Palazzo Farnese; and Act II from the Castel Sant’Angelo the following dawn. It was beamed to 107 countries, making television history. Our own Maestro Zubin Mehta led the forces of the Roma Symphony Orchestra and the Chorus of Italian Radio, with the roles of Tosca, Cavaradossi and Scarpia taken by Catherine Malfitano, Plácido Domingo and Ruggero Raimondi. Although the cast were onsite at the three locations, they were in contact through high-quality miniature radio microphones hidden on their costumes and in their hair as well as camouflaged television monitors and loudspeakers with Mehta, orchestra and chorus, who were far away in a recording studio on the other side of Rome. The musicians had more monitors and individual sets of headphones. The logistic challenges of filming and recording the three Acts were formidable for a whole host of reasons, not least of them the natural acoustic which varied in the three locations: Sant’Andrea della Valle has a nine-second reverberation, while Castel Sant’Angelo is comparatively dry, and the Palazzo Farnese was deemed to have the “perfect” acoustic compared to the other two.

The whole 1992 Tosca broadcast is available to view on YouTube.

“Recondita armonia”, “Vissi d’arte” and “E lucevan le stelle” are some of the great arias in Tosca, contributing to its immense popularity. “E lucevan le stelle” is a favourite with many of the world’s great tenors, with Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti, José Carreras and Roberto Alagna to name just a few, making it one of their signature arias. And in the popular realm, Michael Bolton has performed it as well on tour.

(An edited version of this article was published on 22 June 2014 in my column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)

Stefi Cruz to represent India in Commonwealth Youth Orchestra

Stefi Cruz, a young violinist and teacher from Aldona Goa has been selected to represent India to play in the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra. The Commonwealth Youth Orchestra and Choir are a creation of the Commonwealth Music Partnership, which has Queen Elizabeth II as Diamond Jubilee Patron, and Maestro Zubin Mehta as Music Patron. She spoke to the Navhind Times in an exclusive interview.

Stefi Cruz press release

Congratulations on this fabulous opportunity. Tell us how it came about.

I’ve been working for the last year and a half as a violin teacher at Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org), a music charity that works to bring classical music to India’s disadvantaged children, instilling positive values and creating social empowerment through music.

Child’s Play is one of the few institutions from India chosen to join the Commonwealth Music Partnership. In May, they invited Child’s Play to send a representative in a fully-funded opportunity to play in the violin section of the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra as part of the build-up to the Commonwealth Games Glasgow 2014. I auditioned and was selected.

Where will you be playing?

The Commonwealth Youth Orchestra will have three concert performances: in the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow; and St. James’s Palace and the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, London between 23 to 25 June. It’s going to be a hectic time for me.

Do you know the concert programmes yet?

Yes, the music has been emailed to me in advance. Our concert repertoire will include Antonio Vivaldi’s Concerto for Strings in A major; Concerto for Violin and Strings no. 2 by Paul Carroll; The Commonwealth Song and Anthem; an extract from Henry Purcell’s ‘Come Ye Sons of Art’; and a string piece also by Paul Carroll called ‘Castle of Mey’ (which is the home of the Queen Mother in Caithness, on the north coast of Scotland).

How do you feel at the prospect of this trip? How have you been preparing for it?

I’m incredibly excited as this is going to be my first overseas trip ever. And it’s going to be such a novel experience, meeting other young musicians from all the other Commonwealth countries.

I’ve been working very hard to learn the music scores. I’ve been assigned the first violin part, which has some extremely challenging passages in the upper register.

Tell us how you began studying the violin. You come from a musical family, don’t you?

My father Douglas Cruz played guitar in several popular bands, and my mother Esperanca acted and sang in Konkani tiatr. My sisters Joy, Sandy and I are triplets. Both of them play keyboard and sing. I began violin study at age 9. My long-term teachers include Caridade Fernandes, Eshvita Nazareth and George Gama.

How long have you been a violin teacher?

I have been teaching privately for about nine years, and at the Pilar music school for seven. I have been with Child’s Play, teaching at the Salesian-run Auxilium School Carona Aldona since January 2013.

Since joining Child’s Play India Foundation, it has sponsored and furthered my own professional training in several ways. Masterclasses with the violinist Rasa Zukauskaite greatly improved my confidence in violin playing and my technique. The intensive Suzuki Violin teacher training programme taught me the principles of the Suzuki ethos, and methods of teaching. Most recently, the week-long Trinity Laban Summer Music Academy course in Mumbai was extremely helpful in planning my sessions, and dealing with various scenarios in the teacher-pupil relationship, and learning new teaching strategies. There are so many facets of the teaching and learning process that I had not considered before.

What of the future?

This wonderful opportunity I have been given will certainly widen my horizons and give me a broader perspective which I can impart to my pupils as well. It also promises to be the first of many more opportunities for the children being taught at Child’s Play India Foundation, for their teaching staff and the musicians who play in Camerata Child’s Play India.

(An edited version of this article appeared in the Navhind Times on 20 June 2014)

Stefi Cruz to represent India in Commonwealth Youth Orchestra in London and Glasgow

Stefi Cruz press release

 

Stefi Cruz, a young violinist and teacher from Aldona Goa has been selected to represent India on behalf of Child’s Play India Foundation (www.childsplayindia.org) to play in the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra. The Commonwealth Youth Orchestra and Choir are a creation of the Commonwealth Music Partnership, which has Queen Elizabeth II as Diamond Jubilee Patron, and Maestro Zubin Mehta as Music Patron. 

This is a fully-funded opportunity created by the Partnership as part of the build-up to the Commonwealth Games Glasgow 2014. Stefi Cruz will play in the Commonwealth Youth Orchestra in three concert performances in the Royal Concert Hall Glasgow, and St. James’s Palace and the Commonwealth Secretariat, Marlborough House, London between 23 to 25 June. 

Stefi Cruz comes from a musical family. Her father Douglas Cruz played guitar in several popular bands, and her triplet siblings Joy and Sandy play keyboard and sing. Stefi began violin study at age 9, and her long-term teachers include Caridade Fernandes, Eshvita Nazareth and George Gama. She has been teaching violin for several years, and has been with Child’s Play as a violin teacher since 2013.

Child’s Play India Foundation is one of the only institutions in India chosen by the Commonwealth Music Partnership. This promises to be the first of many more opportunities for Child’s Play children, staff and Camerata musicians. Child’s Play India Foundation is a music charity that works to bring classical music to India’s disadvantaged children, instilling positive values and creating social empowerment through music.  

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