Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Where Have I Been?

You might have noticed that, in spite of the high volume of book reviews I have been reprinting on this blog, I have left several gaps creep in, periods when I posted nothing - some as long as a week or more. I have been waiting for a chance to reel off my list of excuses.

First, there was the week before Palm Sunday, which was "Haydn Week." I call it that because the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra & Chorus spent pretty much the whole week preparing and performing Haydn's Creation, the great oratorio based on the Biblical account of God creating the world in 7 days.

Second only to Handel's Messiah in popularity, and at least its equal in quality, The Creation is a great accomplishment by a consummate creative artist, joyfully celebrating the work of the Creator of all. It has several thrilling choruses, including some fugues that demonstrate that even a Classical Period man-of-fashion like Haydn could achieve feats of contrapuntal brilliance. Many people would recognize the chorus that, in English, begins, "The heavens declare the glory of God," but I had at least as much fun singing all the other chorus numbers, from "And there was LIGHT!!!" with its blazing glory of C major to the final exuberant shout of "Des Herren Ruhm, er bleibt in Ewigkeit" (The Lord's fame will abide forever).

It was also interesting to listen to how Haydn cleverly "painted" the details of creation. When I heard someone asking whether there would be pictures projected above the stage, to help people visualize what we were singing about, I couldn't help but reply: "Dude, that's what the music is for." Haydn conjures the chaos before the formation of the world in the language of pure music - a passage of searching, waiting formlessness to which the succeeding movements bring order. He depicts the fall of the rebel angels at the dawn of a new world. He dazzles the ears with a musical sunrise so glorious that it brings a lump to your throat. He uses a variety of instruments and effects to evoke birdsong and whalesong, snow and hail and thunderstorms, and all kinds of other things that experienced themselves for the first time during the week of Genesis 1.

We performed The Creation in German on April 14 and 15. Our three featured soloists, who at times appeared in the character of angels and at times as Adam, Eve, and God, included the tenor Paul Groves (who sang with us last spring in Britten's War Requiem - I recognized his voice instantly); soprano Laura Aikin, and bass-baritone Ildebrando D'Arcangelo - with whom conductor David Robertson conversed in Spanish. Aikin and Groves both acted up a storm and delivered sensational performances. D'Arcangelo was a captivating musician with a powerful bass voice and lots of springy, dark curls - my mind's ear can still hear him singing "Doch war noch alles nicht vollbracht" (Not yet was everything complete), which somehow carried to my ears as a peal of merry laughter - but if I must find fault with anything, it would be his unmoving physical presence. He stood like a rock, which (at least from behind) gave one's eyes little to fix upon, and added nothing to his expressiveness. If that is my only complaint, it was a very successful concert indeed.

Then came Holy Week. I moved houses over Palm Sunday weekend, and was still nursing sore muscles when it came time to play the organ and lead the choir through Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter services at my church. Immediately afterward, the week of Easter, came another Symphony Chorus week: "Fidelio Week," with an all-star performance of Beethoven's only opera, also conducted by David Robertson. Even without staging, costumes, and dialogue, a lot of things had to come together for this piece - including two numbers in the first act for men's chorus, and a grand finale in the second act with the full, mixed chorus.

A few words must be said about this magnificent opera. There is not a dull page in it. To be sure, having to sit upstage doing nothing through nearly all of it can be a bit trying and, as the week wore on (and we wore out) some of the men in the chorus may have struggled to stay awake through all of it. But it wasn't for a lack of glorious music or exceptional performances by a cast that included international opera stars, veterans of the Met, and Grammy winners.

To begin, the dialogue "filling" between scenes was replaced by a condensed narrative read by sometime actor and sometime orchestra conductor Damon Gupton. But before he says a word, the taut and exhilirating Fidelio Overture sets the scene, followed without a break by a comic love duet (No. 1) between soprano Celena Shafer (as Marcellina) and tenor Philippe Castagner (as Jaquino). Both singers acted their parts to the limit, within the confines of a music-stand between the orchestra and the chorus: Castagner even looking the part of the hopeless suitor, nervous and scruffy, while Shafer was quite convincing as a young girl distracted by romantic dreams. She absolutely wriggled with rapture in her aria (No. 2), where she convinces herself that she would rather marry her father's new assistant, Fidelio.

In an intricate quartet (No. 3), Jaquino, Fidelio (international star and St. Louis Symphony Chorus alum Christine Brewer), Marcellina and her father Rocco (the local jailer, played by revered bass-baritone James Morris) confide their innermost and deeply conflicting feelings to the audience. Then comes Rocco's aria (No. 4), holding forth on his rather pragmatic philosophy of love, marriage, and money. In No. 5, the trio of Rocco, Fidelio, and Marcellina argue over whether Rocco will take Fidelio with him to view the prisoners. The villain of the piece, Pizarro (bass-baritone Greer Grimsley) makes his entrance during an off-kilter orchestral march (No. 6), before singing his manifesto in an aria (No. 7) in which the men's chorus appears as a company of cowed but dutiful prison guards. Pizarro, the type of villain who likes to refer to himself in the third person ("Pizarro will have his revenge!"), joins Rocco in a duet (No. 8) in which he uses intimidation and smears on Rocco's manhood to cajole the latter into helping him murder a political enemy who is languishing in the deepest dungeon. Eventually they come to a compromise whereby Rocco will dig the grave, leaving Pizarro himself to do the foul deed. In No. 9 we hear an aria by Fidelio, who is actually Leonore, a faithful wife in disguise. She has infiltrated Pizarro's prison in hopes of learning the fate of her long-missing husband Florestan. Then comes the long finale of Act 1 (No. 10), a complicated scene involving at least Fidelio, Rocco, Pizarro, and a male chorus of prisoners who are let out to enjoy a little fresh air ("O welche Lust! in freier Luft den Athem leicht zu heben!") and finally shut back in again ("Leb wohl, du warmes Sonnenlicht!")

After the intermission, Act 2 begins with an aria (No. 11) by a new character, Florestan (tenor Stuart Skelton, whom I heard a couple years ago doing Das Lied von der Erde - or rather didn't hear, since Mahler made sure the orchestra would drown him out). Florestan is running out of strength and hope, but he is briefly encouraged by a hallucination of his wife Leonore coming to him. Florestan loses consciousness in time for No. 12, a Rocco-Leonore duet in which the latter, still disguised as Fidelio, trembles with dread while helping the former dig a grave for the still-living prisoner, whom she has not yet recognized as her husband. This chilling piece, orchestrated with a pitch-dark emphasis on low strings, contrabassoon, and trombones, ought to be on an album of "scary classical music to play on Halloween." What an atmosphere of dread it calls up! But then Florestan wakes up and joins the other two in a trio (No. 13) - Leonore still holding back on revealing her identity. Pizarro enters (No. 14) for a four-way scene that brings the opera to its ultimate crisis - so decisively that, on hearing the final chords, I wanted someone to say "THE END!" But there are still two more pieces: a rapturous duet (No. 15) between the revealed wife and her rescued husband, and a jubilant finale involving all the characters, plus the whole chorus as a crowd of townspeople and liberated prisoners, accelerating toward a "Beethoven's 9th Symphony"-style finish in which everybody is bursting with joy, praising the courage and faithful love of Leonore.

The soloists were all magnificent, particularly Greer Grimsley of the terrifyingly powerful bass voice, vocal trooper and BBC's "17th greatest soprano ever" Christine Brewer (who still lives a short hop across the Illinois line), and - I'm sorry, I have to play favorites - the awesome Stuart Skelton, who grabs your heart with his very first note (a drawn-out cry of "Gott!") and crushes it to a pulp with his memorable, and from-memory, performance of what must clearly be a stupendously difficult part. He acts and sings up a storm, and when he and Brewer finally get together for their love duet, you sense chemistry between them. This guy is huge, physically, vocally, and artistically.

I also apologize for forgetting to mention Don Fernando, the "deus ex machina" who turns up for the second-act finale and tells everyone how it's all going to work out. Played by bass-baritone Jason Grant, Fernando embodies the optimistic nature of Beethoven's outlook, which underlies this entire opera: the idea that, even in a world full of injustice and tyranny, goodness and love will eventually save the day. Experience does little to inspire such faith, but the fact that Beethoven devoted his only opera to it - a wholly unique opera, driven by a deeply individual vision - means that its message will continue to be heard as long as the world has ears that love to hear Beethoven's music, and hands and voices that know how to perform it.

Apart from that (which we performed on March 28 and 30, and again on April 5), my excuses conclude with a 3-day trip to Minnesota, where I met with some people at a place about a thing, and also visited my brother, nephew, uncle, and grandpa for the first time in a couple of years. A good time was had by all.

IMAGES from top: Groves, Aikin, D'Arcangelo, Gupton, Castagner, Shafer, Brewer, Skelton, Morris, Grimsley, and Grant.

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