The purpose of our trip to New York prior to Christmas 2010 was to see Seiji Ozawa conduct once more and to finally hear the Saito Kinen Orchestra in person. It was also to hear Barbara Hannigan perform on a chamber concert with conductor Sir Simon Rattle. We purchased our tickets in August in anticipation of a holiday of good music, food and friends. In neither of these were we disappointed.
As an undergraduate studying voice with Mary Morrison at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Music, Barbara had sung with Nexus and continued to do so for a brief period after her graduation. She went to England and then moved to Amsterdam where her career began to grow and attract international attention. In some respects Barbara’s career reminds me of the great Cathy Berberian (1925-83) 1
Berberian was an artist with an eclectic repertoire and often performed music by Luciano Berio (1825-2003). Hannigan, who also has wide ranging tastes, has an affinity for the music of György Ligeti (1923-2006), and it is Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre” (1991) which she performed in Zankel Hall with the ACJW Ensemble conducted by Simon Rattle. In 2006, she sang Stravinsky’s “Les Noces” (1917) with the Berlin Philharmonic on one days notice and since then has appeared with them seven times. Just last year, she sang the Nightingale in Stravinsky’s “Le Rossignole” (1914) with the same orchestra, Pierre Boulez conducting. Though Barbara has concentrated primarily on contemporary music, I’ve heard she’s also been engaged by the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto to sing Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” K.527.(1787)
Barbara’s vocal range is wide, but once told me she’s happiest when all the notes are above the treble clef. I’ve never heard anyone sing notes as high as those in “Mysteries of the Macabre” and in fact, never thought them possible, at least not expressively and in tune. And the vocal virtuosity and acting skill necessary to bring this work off is something Barbara achieves with deceptive ease.
Zankel Hall, tucked three floors under the main stage of Carnegie Hall, is a comfortable space for chamber music, Not too large, not too small. The program featured Ligeti’s “Mysteries of the Macabre” (1991) and his Violin Concerto (1989-93) performed by the German violinist Christian Tetszlaff (b.1961). The program opens with music by Jean Phiippe Rameau, the Suite “Les Boreades”. The work is in seven movements and the fourth movement, “Rondeau” opens with a drum roll. When I heard it, the drum roll, the question immediately sprang to mind, “Do conductors hear percussion?” This drum was simply a tenor drum tensioned too high for the music, but the worst part were the plastic heads which were not properly tuned, thus producing ‘false’ overtones’ and a tinny sound. I know that as a percussionist I might be finicky, but come on. The sound was so ridiculously out of place I felt like screaming. Had the orchestra played 100 notes out of tune, the effect would not have been worse. Otherwise the work was beautifully played.
I was not as enthusiastic about the Ligeti Violin Concerto as was Sir Simon,2 and though I’d heard his name, I had never heard Tetszlaff perform live or on recordings. I enjoyed his playing very much particularly during the lovely violin solo in Richard Strauss ‘ (1864-1949) “Metamorphosen” at concert’s end.
“Mysteries of the Macabre” was next. The first time I encountered Ligeti was in 1972 when I played the percussion part to “Nouvelle Aventures” which was very definitely an adventure for me. Today, the only thing I remember about the performance is tearing butcher’s paper and throwing an entire set of cheap dishes into a large wooden box, the bottom of which had been lined with metal stage weights. Serendipitously, the Soprano soloist was Mary Morrison.3 It was great fun and whenever I think of Ligeti, this concert comes to mind.
For all the responsibilities demanded by her role Barbara certainly has fun. She makes her entrance in a jet black wig, black leather trench coat and laced knee-high black boots. Midway through the performance she “disrobes” revealing black mesh stockings and a 1920s Berlin Marlena Dietrich, Kurt Weill femme fatale top that only could be displayed by a woman with Barbara’s panache.
As the drama intensifies, Barbara pushes Sir Rattle aside and begins conducting. He retaliates by pushing her away with his foot and regains control of the orchestra. At one point Rattle, unhinged by Barbara’s vocal antics, loses his cool and runs into the orchestra yelling something about Justin Bieber and orchestral decorum, before returning to his conductoral duties. The entire work which lasts only about 10 minutes is a tour-de-force for all the performers. The audience, many of whom were Juilliard students who had come to hear their friends in the ACJW Ensemble got right into the mood, and applauded enthusiastically. Barbara took four or five elongated bows necessitated by her outfit and swept off stage to lingering applause. 4
A goodly amount of time was needed to clear the air and stage for Strauss’ “Metamorphosen: A Study for 23 Strings”, (1945).5 Paul Sacher, the eminent Swiss conductor and patron of contemporary music, commissioned Strauss to write the work for 23 solo strings and premiered it in January 1946 with his Zurich Collegium Musicum. Metamorphosen was written towards the end of the Second World War as a lament for the destruction of Germany, particularly for the bombing of the Munich Opera House and the Goethehaus, which Strauss called “the world’s most holy shrine”. The violin solo, played by Tetszlaff with exquisite introspection and lack of affectation, rivals any of Strauss’s melodic output . Strauss’ sense of sadness is later underscored by a brief quote from the beginning of the Funeral March from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
There was plenty of room for thought between Ligeti, Rameau and Strauss and the quality and scope of performances remained with us as we walked slowly across the street to the Redeye Grill where a lite repast gave us time to absorb the evening’s music.
The works of Symbolist author Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949) are not popular today, but the painters and musicians of the European fin de siècle admired his depiction of humanity in symbolic rather than realistic terms. Debussy, after struggling for years to find a story suitable for a stage work, found Maeterlinck’s Pelléas et Mélisande met the requirements of his dramatic and musical ideas.
And it was this opera that Rattle had chosen to make his Metropolitan Opera debut. The story is dark, the opera is long and the music, so different from anything in the Verismo repertoire, have combined to make “Pelléas et Mélisande” a favorite with aficionados, but not with the general public. Therefore, on the afternoon of Rattle’s second performance, my wife and I had no problem purchasing wonderful seats, center balcony.
Rattle snuck unnoticed into the pit and sat quietly beside the podium as the rest of the orchestra entered the pit and tuned. His discretion allowed him to begin the opera without any applause from the audience. And thus Debussy began to cast his spell. The first two acts went by as in a dream and I think I took my first breath after I realized there was going to be a pause.
We had never before heard an opera in the Met. The Met is huge, almost 4000 seats, but retains a certain intimacy and its’ open pit which extends beyond the stage reminds me of the new opera house in Toronto. The sound is fine, and the playing of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra is as good as almost any symphony orchestra in the world. The pianissimos, and there were many, were softer, more controlled and in tune than any I’ve ever heard. At one point I found myself being pulled forward towards the pit by a remarkable diminuendo that seemed unending.
“Pelléas et Mélisande” is set in a castle , a forest or grotto and the blue gray scenery reminded me of the colors in chalk drawings of Renaissance artists. Their sombre, brooding tones fluctuated occasionally from dark to darker. The set would periodically rotate, very slowly, allowing singers to move through a doorway into another room, a garden or forest without interrupting the spell.
As the fifth act came to a close, a single chime note began to peal, its dissonance underscoring the tragedies that had taken place. By themselves, these last few minutes rival the most poignant, melancholy music ever written. During cast bows, the Met orchestra players joined the audience to enthusiastically demonstrate their appreciation for Rattle’s sensitive direction.
1.From 1950 to 1964 Berberian was married to Luciano Berio, whom she met when they were students at the Milan Conservatory. They had one daughter, Christina Luisa, born in 1953. Berberian became Berio’s muse both during and after their marriage. He deconstructed her voice in Thema (Omaggio a Joyce) (1958) and wrote his Circles (1960), Folk Songs (1964), Sequenza III for woman’s voice (1965), and Recital I (for Cathy) (1972) for her.
2. The day of the concert I heard a televised interview with Simon Rattle during which he made a very intelligent and impassioned plea for the necessity of performing contemporary music. He referred to the the Ligeti Violin Concerto as being comparable with the music of Johanne Sebastian Bach.
3. Mary Morrison is a revered vocal teacher and mentor. Her students perform on the world’s stages and when in Toronto, often stay with her in her hone. Mary’s career as a performer, and teacher as well as her famous ebullience, was rewarded by the Canadian government when it made her a member of the Order of Canada.
4. “. . . amid-all this Ms. Hannigan’s pinpoint vocalizations and fluid acting conveyed Ligeti’s parody of a secret–police chief with scalpel-edge sharpness”. The New York Times, December 2010.
Two reviews of the 2006 Alice Tulley Hall performance:
.”To call Barbara Hannigan a soprano is like calling Robin Williams a public speaker; the term doesn’t begin to cover her fearless verve or elasticity … the 8 minute theatrical tour de-force left her spent and the audience roaring. Who said the avant garde can’t be fun?” New York Newsday, January 2006.
“Mysteries of the Macabre” was performed here by the fearless soprano Barbara Hannigan. Wearing fishnet tights,spiked heels and a leather trench coat, Ms. Hannigan was a demonic presence. But even scarier was her uncanny ability to toss off the hysterical coloratura flights and nonsensical words . . . Ms. Hannigan, Conductor de Leeuw and the players were brought back for five bows by the audience”. The New York Times January, 2006.
For examples of Barbara Hannigan’s artistry, see YouTube videos , particularly those of 2010 and 11 New Years celebrations from Amsterdam.
5. The performance of “Metamorphosen” reminded me of the day I first visited the home of composer Bruce Mather. His wife Pierrette served a splendid lunch and Bruce, a member of the exclusive Burgundian wine fraternity, Chevaliers du Tastevin which owns the property and chateau that produces the great Clos du Vougeot, selected the wines. Fine wines. After lunch Bruce played a recording of Strauss’ choral work “Deutsche Motetet”. As I fell under its spell, I fell asleep, prone on his living room sofa and remember waking up in Halifax. My excuse is simple. I had never drunk wines of any kind, let alone great wines, from Burgundy. The food, wine and music were too rich. I’ve since learned to tolerate the combination.