Monday, August 29, 2016
Royal Opera House, London Terfel makes the title role of Mussorgsky’s flawed masterpiece his own in a powerful new staging of the rarely seen original versionThe famous portrait of Mussorgsky by the Russian painter Ilya Repin, currently on show at the National Portrait Gallery, tells you all. Bloodshot eyes, matted hair and beard, skin puffy and sallow, eyes distant yet wild: within days, Mussorgsky (1839-81) would be dead of drink, aged 42. He received no proper training in composition. Nor did he ever earn his living from music. Born into Russian nobility, he went into the army then spent his increasingly dissolute life as a government clerk, suffering alcohol-induced epilepsy, bouts of madness and destitution. The rumour that his grave is now under a bus stop is hard to verify but completes the sad picture.Yet he had friends and admirers, most of them fellow composers. Many went to extreme lengths to support him. Rimsky-Korsakov – that great enabler and wizard of orchestration – and much later Shostakovich each had two attempts at making Mussorgsky’s only completed opera, Boris Godunov, “better”. He was working for the forestry department when he wrote this awkward, misshapen masterpiece based on Pushkin. It was rejected by St Petersburg’s Mariinsky theatre in part for its lack of a leading female role. The usual Boris we hear – to give a Snapchat version of the work’s protracted history – is the epic, expanded 1874 score. In a compelling new staging by Richard Jones, conducted by Antonio Pappano, the Royal Opera has dared – for the first time – to go back to the 1869 original, in all its rawness.Mussorgsky may have used rough tools when it came to orchestration, but he knew what he wanted from his voices Continue reading...
ljova_photo_Pemi_Paull Soulful violist and composer/arranger Lev ‘Ljova’ Zhurbin was featured in Ljova and the Kontraband’s Sunday afternoon concert at Brooklyn’s new home for the all-inclusive new music scene, National Sawdust. Going by ‘Ljova,’ the kindred version of his traditional Russian-Hebrew name, Lev, the artist and his Kontraband filled the room, which had been arranged cabaret-style, with tuneful energy. Folksy tango tunes with virtuosic viola passages next to Yiddish folk songs performed with great gusto by Ljova’s wife, singer Inna Barmash, pulled young and old alike into ethnic rhythmic soundscapes. Says Barmash: “If you’ve been here in Brooklyn long enough, you have certainly heard Yiddish spoken by many of its Jewish, Eastern European inhabitants.” But while songs were sung in Yiddish, and some of the tango arrangements, especially those for accordion (virtuosic accordionist Julian Labro was sitting in for the band’s member Patrick Farrell), were reminiscent of Piazzolla, there was also something very different present in the compositions, giving the music a unique artistic characteristic of its own. As the program promised: “You will think you have heard it, but didn’t…at least not quite like this. Quite far removed from the repertoire of his traditional classical music training, Ljova’s music stays alive through its own magic, fostered by intense rhythms of klezmer, tango, jazz, gypsy music and soaring melodic structures, many of which seem to originate in the eastern shtetl, rather than in Schubert. The son of Russian Jewish émigrés famed Moscow composer Alexander Zhurbin, most renowned for his 1975 rock opera “Orpheus and Eurydice,” and poet Irena Ginzburg, Ljova always managed to stay closely connected to the nurturing roots of his heritage without being stuck in the generational gap. Born into a Russian musician’s home, violin lessons with the renowned Galina Turchaninova, teacher to talents like Maxim Vengerov and Vadim Repin, were part of Ljova’s Moscow routine from age four on. He left this part of his life behind when he immigrated in 1990 at age 11 to New York, along with his parents. It may have been the influence of his uncle, Yuri Gandelsman, former principal violist of the Moscow Virtuosi and the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra that caused Ljova to choose to enroll at Juilliard, where he became a student of the eminent Samuel Rhodes, violist of the Juilliard String Quartet. Ljova might have continued to follow this road if it had not been for his curiosity and willingness to try on other musical hats. Making music within “the other” non-classical world of music, whether at jazz gigs at nightclubs, weddings, or folk festivals, taught Ljova to improvise and compose, and opened a different worldview for him to absorb, first reluctantly, then eagerly, eventually making it his own. photo_Ilona_Oltuski_GetClassical Kontraband_photo_Ilona_Oltuski_GetClassical Ljova’s first solo recording, World on Four Strings, released in 2006 on his own Kapustnik label, features the viola dominantly, yet with atmospheric multi-tracked recorded viola parts, gracefully departs from the classical genre. An array of musical arrangements for artists like Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, Brooklyn Rider, The Knights, the Kronos Quartet and artists as diverse as rapper Jay-Z and Alondra de la Parra, among others, added greatly to Ljova’s exposure and experience. Composing for his beloved viola or his Kontraband or an entire Orchestra, Ljova has developed a varied and consistently unique voice of deeply felt, personal perception of musical delight. He came to realize that there are only two kinds of music, good – and bad. Ljova’s musical ideas are flowing from a space within his very “normal life.” His persona does not present extravagancy, or any romantic ideal of an artist that seeks the stardom of a celebrated idol; his Viola strapped on his back, Ljova travels mostly by bike from his Upper West Side neighborhood. On occasion, he will leave himself a message on his cell phone with a reminder of a new musical idea that just came to him in that moment. His warm, unpretentious personality comes across as genuine to a fault: whether on stage or a broadcasted talk show, of which he has done several, or as a family man, a good neighbor and friend, he manages to stay relevant, doing whatever it takes to live a life that includes music on a daily basis. Ljova is in high demand as a film composer. Some of his recent credits include scores to “Finding Babel”, a documentary about the Russian-Ukrainian-Jewish writer Isaak Babel and “Datuna: Portrait of America”, about the Georgian artist David Datuna, which just won a prize at Raindance Film Festival. Ljova has also composed music for documentaries produced by the BBC, and contributed music to documentaries by NHK and HBO. He has also scored nearly three dozen short-subject films. Ljova also collaborates extensively with choreographers, including two ballets with Aszure Barton & Artists, as well as commissions from Parsons Dance, Ballet Hispanico, New Dialect and others. The connections that Ljova makes with people are lasting and meaningful; his relationship with Brooklyn Rider goes back to 2008, when he shared the bill with the group at Joe’s Pub. It was the highly successful string quartet’s first year in existence, with violinist Johnny Gandelsman, violist Nicholas Cords and the two Jacobsen brothers, Eric on cello and Colin on violin. It was Ljova’s second year performing with the Kontraband. The lines between Ljova’s collaboration and friendship with the Brooklyn-based quartet, inspired by the “Blue Rider,” were blurred from the beginning. At their first performance, Brooklyn Rider performed several of Ljova’s pieces, including “Plume,” “Crosstown” and “Budget Bulgar.” The quartet also went with Ljova’s arrangement for Silk Road Ensemble, “Brîu,” a tune form the repertoire of Taraf de Haïdouks, originally composed for the project. “Plume” and “Crosstown” also appeared on the group’s debut recording Passport. Eric Jacobsen says: “I can’t help but be inspired by Ljova. His imagination is fascinating and endless. He is one of those people, that when I see an opportunity for collaboration, I immediately think of him. He is true to his nature and creative spirit, however incredibly able to adapt to all situations and relationships.” One of Ljova’s new works in the making is a commission by Eric Jacobsen, who is currently starting to serve as conductor for the Orlando Philharmonic and the Bridgeport Symphony. It is unsurprising that the afternoon at Sawdust had the intimacy of a family affair. Ljova aims for personal connection, as he laments: “Everyone has moved on into different neighborhoods. Even when planning concerts, it has become difficult to find an era that works for everyone…” it was therefore an important gesture that children were admitted to Sunday’s concert for free. Ljova’s cousin, Johnny Gandelsman – violinist of Brooklyn Rider, which had just performed at Sawdust the previous week, was in attendance with his animated kids. photo_Ilona_Oltuski_GetClassical But beyond the literal family connections – Ljova is of course married to his “Kontraband”‘s vocalist – the familiarity with which the performers demonstrated their instruments, percussionist Mathias Kűnzli most intricately, or talked about their music, held an informal objective, whcih created an intimate, family-friendly milieu. The artists, belonging to a generation of New York musicians who are grown up with families of their own, look to swap the musician’s ideal of the hip nightlife performance venue into one that allows their friends and fans to bring their kids. “So many performances I give cannot be frequented by many of my colleagues and friends, since they don’t have babysitting available,” he says. The practical answer for Ljova is to perform in spaces conducive to bringing people together, uniting young and old and making the community grow a little closer together. Remarkably, this is exactly what his performance proved to represent. If smaller performance venues typically fill with the artists’ following to begin with, why not make it possible to include all of them? This is a valid question to which Ljova answers with low-key performances with communal character. Already, Ljova’s shtick has gained traction with new audiences, and major concert venues like Lincoln Center seem to be following suit. While composer and Artistic Director of Sawdust, Paola Prestini, has, in her own words, aimed to create a forward-thinking laboratory to explore unknown artistic territory, she has in the process established a communal hub that satisfies a popular demand and community need.
Modest Musorgsky, painted only a few days before his death by Ilya Repin, 1881. Courtesy Wikimedia/Google Cultural Institute Musorgsky is one of opera’s greatest composers – and yet he finished only one opera in his short life. In fact, he finished it twice: his masterpiece Boris Godunov exists in two complete and quite different versions. But alongside Boris there were eight operatic projects Musorgsky began, none of which he completed – whether because his ideas changed, or because the project fell through, or because his chronic alcoholism got in the way. The music he wrote for six of those projects offer tantalizing glimpses of the Musorgsky masterpieces that could have been – and, though unfinished, are wonderful works in their own right. Musorgsky first considered writing an opera aged 17, as a student at Cadet School with no compositional training whatsoever. Nothing ever came of his plan to adapt Victor Hugo ’s novel Han d’Islande ‘because nothing ever could’, he later wrote. He tried his hand again seven years later, this time adapting Flaubert ’s lavish historical fantasy Salammbô . After three years he had produced around 90 minutes of music – almost entirely big choral numbers, with barely anything for the central drama – before giving up on the project, perhaps craving something more Russian in tone. He certainly achieved this in The Marriage, a verbatim setting of a Gogol comedy about an indecisive groom. In it Musorgsky experimented with his theories on the relationships between text and music. But at a private performance of the first act the consensus was that Musorgsky had taken the experiment too far: the music of The Marriage was felt to be so dependent on Gogol’s words that it had little intrinsic value of its own. The Marriage was abandoned as Musorgsky started work on Boris. Musorgsky completed Boris Godunov in just over a year. While he was waiting for a verdict from the censors he dabbled with Bobïl’ (The Landless Peasant), adapted from a setting of the Hansel and Gretel tale. He wrote just one scene before returning to Boris, which had been rejected by the censors. While that work was underway, Musorgsky was invited to contribute along with four other composers to an immense opera-ballet, Mlada. The project was abandoned as soon as it became obvious how ruinously expensive it would be. The sell-out premiere of the second version of Boris Godunov in 1874 was the height of Musorgsky’s career. It launched him onto two very different projects – Khovanshchina , begun 1872, and The Fair at Sorochintsï , begun 1874 – which Musorgsky worked on concurrently over the last years of his life, switching between the two as he encountered hurdles with each. There’s enough to suggest these both could have been major works, a fact recognized by his contemporaries: two separate groups of well-wishers each attempted to bribe him into finishing them. The historical drama Khovanshchina was the natural follow-on to Boris, and was conceived the year of Peter the Great ’s bicentenary. Musorgsky compiled the sprawling libretto over nearly a decade, examining in turn the three main opponents to the young Peter’s accession to the throne, and how they were vanquished on Peter’s path to greatness. Later completions emphasize the triumph of Peter’s victory, but Musorgsky’s letters suggest he had in mind something more ambiguous – reflecting the great losses, both of life and in Russian culture, that were part of Peter’s sweeping reforms. Musorgsky’s wish to create a role for his friend, the Ukrainian-born bass Osip Petrov , drew him towards Gogol’s lighthearted, Ukrainian-set short story The Fair at Sorochintsï. Musorgsky’s anxieties about his ability to set Ukrainian speech patterns, and then Petrov’s death in 1878, were just two setbacks among many that delayed Musorgsky’s work. Nevertheless, the music that made it to the page gives a lively sense of the opera’s imaginative use of Ukrainian folksong, and Musorgsky’s great gift for characterization through music. Fortunately for audiences, Musorgsky’s unfinished operas have long attracted his fellow composers to propose their own completions and orchestrations. It is thanks to these re-evaluations that we have the opportunity to hear these incomplete works, and dream for ourselves what might have been. Boris Godunov runs 14 March–5 April 2016. Tickets are still available. The production is a co-production with Deutsche Oper Berlin and is given with generous philanthropic support from Mrs Aline Foriel-Destezet, The Tsukanov Family Foundation, Simon and Virginia Robertson, The Mikheev Charitable Trust, the Boris Godunov Production Syndicate and an anonymous donor.
Johannes Brahms was just 19 years old in 1852 when he wrote his first two piano sonatas that he felt were worthy of publication. In these extended 4-movement compositions he built on the heritage of Beethoven, as was the case with his later symphonies. These compositions are quite serious, and may require more than one hearing to be fully appreciated. Still they are important because Brahms was very critical of his own works and destroyed a lot of his own compositions with which he was dissatisfied. We hear the following on this CD: Brahms: Piano Sonata No. 1 in C major, Op. 1 Piano Sonata No. 2 in F sharp minor, Op. 2 Scherzo in E flat minor, Op. 4 Performed by Alexander Melnikov Alexander Melnikov was born in Moscow in 1973 and began his music studies at the age of six, at Moscow’s Central Music School, then continued at the city’s Tchaikovsky Conservatory from which he graduated in 1997. Alexander Melnikov appears regularly in recital at the world’s leading concert halls with major orchestras. Besides his well-established duo with violinist Isabelle Faust, his other partners include Vadim Repin, Yuri Bashmet, and many others. And… here’s a video of Melnikov playing the music of Shostakovich:
The Wieniawski Lipinski Violin Competition took place last week in Lublin. President of the jury was Zakhar Bron. This ought to ring two sets of alarm bells. The competition has been previously suspended from the World Federation of Music Competitions and the prolific Zakhar Bron – teacher of Maxim Vengerov, Vadim Repin and others – is notorious for rigging juries to ensure the top prizes go to his students. In Lublin, two students of Zakhar Bron, Elea Nick & Issel Ines, took joint first prize in the junior section. Two others came second and fifth. In the senior group, first prize of course went once again to Bron students, Elli Choi and Eva Rabchevska. Third prize went to a student of Bron’s assistant and fellow jury member, Akiko Tatsumi. (The results have not yet been reported in Polish media, or online.) Earlier this year, prizes at a Zakhar Bron competition were awarded exclusively to his students . Pay Bron for lessons, get an international award. When will the music world put a stop to such farces? Please note: the Lublin competition is not to be confused with the Wieniawski competition in Poznan, which takes place next year, with Vengerov as chairman.
Cello judges include: Lynn Harrell, Yo-Yo Ma, Misha Maisky, David Geringas, Alexander Knyazev and Carnegie Hall chief Clive Gillinson (a former cellist in the LSO). Piano judges: Sergey Dorensky, Dmitry Bashkirov, Vladimir Ovchinnikov, Denis Matsuev, Michel Béroff, Barry Douglas, Peter Donohoe, Alexander Toradze, Menahem Pressler. Violin jury: Yuri Bashmet, Maxim Vengerov, Leonidas Kavakos, Viktor Tretyakov, Vadim Repin, Verbier chief Martin Engström, Lucerne chief Michael Haefliger, Boris Kushnir, James Ehnes, Salvatore Accardo and Liana Isakadze. On the voice panel Gergiev has picked: Olga Borodina, Thomas Quasthoff, Julia Varady, Samuel Ramey and two ex-Met chiefs John Fisher and Sarah Billingshurst. More names will be added. The calibre of the juries is outstandingly high. Many of the participants are close personal associates of Valery Gergiev. The Russians among them are obedient cap-doffers to the Putin regime.