About Life in Flow:Flow in Life

Monday, May 11, 2015

L'enfant et les sortileges, truly enchanting

The Chicago Symphony is currently presenting French Reveries & Passions with Esa-Pekka Salonen. We attended the concert last week that included Ravel's Mother Goose Suite,  Debussy's La damoiselle elue, and a very unusual work, an opera by Ravel titled L'enfant et les sortileges, or "The child and the enchantments."

The entire concert was wonderful. Mother Goose was quietly enchanting, and the Debussy was a very interesting piece, using a poem of Dante Gabriel Rossetti that tells the other side of Edgar Allen Poe's poem "The Raven." In "The Raven" a man longs for his lost love who is now in heaven. In La damoiselle elue (The Blessed Damsel) the woman, in heaven, longs for and awaits her lover still on earth. It was an interesting, rarely heard piece, but the piece that really charmed and intrigued me was L'enfant et les sortileges.

This short opera, with a libretto by Colette, tells the story of a young boy, possibly 6 or 7 years old, who doesn't want to do his homework. When his mother finds out, she tells him he must stay in his room until he finishes with only "tea with no sugar and dry toast." After she leaves he has a tantrum in which he smashes the teapot and cup, pokes the pet squirrel in his cage, pulls the cat's tail, knocks over the kettle, swings on the grandfather clock's pendulum and breaks it off, tears up his books and rips the wallpaper with the poker. When he collapses the enchantment begins. The furniture comes alive, singing that it's glad the boy will no longer attack it with his heels. In a series of arias and duets, the various objects express their points of view. Some of these are poignant, while others are quite funny. The CSO not only had supertitles projected onto the stage, but also pictures of which characters were singing at the time. So, for example, when the shepherds and shepherdesses come to life, we saw a silhouette type illustration of them on the screen. Of the eight soloists, only Chloe Briot, who sang the boy, had a single role. The others played several different characters.

The interesting preconcert talk was given by Derek Matson, a dramaturg who works with many Chicago arts groups. Among the insights he shared was that Ravel specified that the teapot must be a black Wedgwood and the cup was a Chinese cup. Mr. Matson explained that a Limoges teapot would be more typical for a French household, but Ravel wanted his teapot to be an American boxer, singing a sort of pidgin English during a foxtrot, while the Chinese cup answers in a French version of Chinese. Manuel Nunez Camelino, the tenor who sang the teapot, was a wonderful actor in all his roles. As the teapot, he used his arm as both the spout and a boxing stance, jabbing now and then.

Another highly unusual duet is the Duo miaule, a duet between the boy's cat and a female cat, sung entirely in miaows. Mr. Matson told his preconcert audience that the first audiences had been outraged by this duet and made so much noise of their own, adding miaows and catcalls, that it was difficult to hear the music. Another of my favorite parts was when the boy discovers that only his mathematics book has survived his rage. "Mathematics" comes to life as an eccentric professor type, singing incorrect equations, and then the children's chorus, representing numbers, streams on stage to join him.

The second part of the opera is more serious, moving into the boy's yard as the moon rises. There the animals confront him with the pain and harm he has done them and finally attack him. He realizes how cruel he has been, and when his squirrel injures his paw, the boy bandages it. This shows the animals that he has learned his lesson and they sing, "he is a good boy."

Until this concert, I didn't know all that much about Ravel. I knew Bolero, of course, and the Mother Goose Suite, Rapsodie Espanole, Daphnis and Chloe, and of course every horn player knows Pavanne for a Dead Princess. I had generally thought of Ravel lumped together with Debussy, both impressionists. With this concert, I realized that Ravel lived further into the 20th century than I had realized. He died in 1937. This charming opera also demonstrated that Ravel was definitely part of 20th century music and is distinctly different than Debussy. At one point he has the chorus speaking their lines in rhythm, like sprechstimme, used by Arnold Schoenberg as well as other 20th century composers. The orchestra includes a lutheal, a hybrid piano invented in the early 20th century. There is whimsy and humor in the musical numbers, as well as experimentation.

Requiring a full orchestra (including the rare lutheal), small chorus, children's chorus, and eight soloists, this an expensive piece for an organization to present. It's too bad because this is a delightful and eye-opening opera.

Here is the cats' duet from the Glyndebourne Opera production:

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

A Slice of Musical Life

This past Sunday was a special day for me musically. The concert band that both my husband and I play in had its last concert of the year and our daughter, who also plays horn, and I were featured on a solo.

The road to this solo performance was winding and full of roadblocks.

Every fall, any band member who is interested can audition for a chance to play a solo with the band. Generally two or three players are chosen. The first couple of years it was all woodwind players and I thought the brass really needed to be represented. However, I didn't want to play a solo by myself. So, I asked one of the other horn players if he wanted to audition with me on a concerto for two horns. I picked this piece because it is one of a small handful of pieces for two solo horns with band. My horn player friend said sure. He also felt that we needed to give the woodwind players some friendly competition. We planned to work on it over the summer. Well, it seemed we were never in town at the same time. Fall came and he said he just didn't have time to learn the part, which was quite challenging. End of story, I thought.

I was telling my daughter Jamie what happened and she said, "I could do it with you." Well, she's not a member of the band. She's a busy graduate student. She doesn't live with us, making rehearsing more difficult. But she already knew one of the parts. So I said I would ask the conductor if we could audition even though she isn't in the band. Much to my surprise he said yes. She had filled in at one concert, so he said that was close enough.

The next challenge for me was that the part Jamie already knew was the part that I had planned to play. So I needed to learn the other part, which is very high. Both of us are really low horn players. Like training for a marathon, learning this part required a lot of practice time to build up the endurance.

The piece in question is a "double concerto" for two horns was written by Antonio Rosetti, a contemporary of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. Rosetti was German, despite his name, which he changed, probably because Italian musicians were paid more than Germans in the 18th century. He was a court musician in one of the many small courts in what is now Germany. He had two outstanding horn players in his orchestra, for whom he wrote at least 17 concertos, plus 6 double concertos. His music is rarely played today.

We auditioned last September and were one of three soloists chosen. Our concert date was in May.

Next roadblock: The Band music is rental only. The school district that sponsors our band ordered the music. Through some miscommunication somewhere, the wrong concerto arrived. It was only 4 weeks before the concert. The conductor told me he thought it was not possible to return the parts and get the correct music in time to prepare it for the concert. End of story, I thought.

But no, my husband was determined that we would play. He called the rental company the next day and explained the problem so persuasively that the correct music arrived at our house two days later! We had two rehearsals with the band and then it was concert time.

People are surprised that I get nervous when performing, but it's true. This time, though, it was such a joy to play this charming little piece with Jamie that my mind was only on the music and the pleasure of playing. A perfect performance? No, but I think we communicated the spirit of the piece. And we had fun!

Seize the moment! So many roadblocks along the way and this may very well be the only time that Jamie and I solo together in public. It's a great memory to have. 
Antonio Rosetti

A version of this post appears on my blog The Game's Afoot! 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

Five Things: A Challenge

There was a challenge traveling around the education part of Twitter recently with the hashtag #makeschooldifferent. The challenge, begun by Scott McLeod (Dangerously Irrelevant)  was to post a list of five things that all start with the statement "When it comes to education we have to stop pretending..." I was inspired by the many lists I read, and I wrote my own.

Then I began thinking about whether I could do the same for classical music - write a list of five things that we need to stop pretending about. We have all known for several decades that classical music has some serious challenges in today's world. Declining ticket sales, aging audiences, lack of music education in the younger public because of cuts in school music programs, perceived lack of relevance, and a limited repertoire are problems faced by American orchestras today. All these issues are acknowledged by the people who run orchestras. Many different ideas have been tried to bring new audiences in, to go out to the public, and to vary the types of programs that orchestras present. I don't see a lot of pretending going on. Orchestras know what the problem is, but haven't hit upon a surefire solution.

On the other hand, young musicians training for a career in classical music also face problems that previous generations did not have. There are so many music majors graduating every year that there is no possibility that even most of them will be able to get jobs in orchestras or related classical music areas. Robert Freeman, former director of the Eastman School of Music and the New England Conservatory of Music has written a book, The Crisis of Classical Music in America sharing his views on this problem. In a recent interview Freeman stated that 30,000 music majors graduate from American colleges each year. Not all of these will be instrumentalists seeking positions in orchestras, but it's still way too many instrumentalists for the number of orchestral openings each year. This means, Freeman says, "When you're in school, you're hoping to be the principal oboe. Then you get out of school and it turns out there are 500 candidates for the job, 100 of whom are perfectly well qualified." When I was an undergraduate, my teacher, Milan Yancich, told me that he used to get calls from NYC asking him to "send down a few boys to audition" (yes, boys). Music organizations actually had to solicit to get players to come audition. It was no longer like that when I was in music school, but it's much, much worse now.

So here is my list of five things. I'm writing as an audience member, music lover, and the parent of a young aspiring musician.

We need to stop pretending:

  • that technical perfect playing equals a musical performance. With so many well-qualified musicians auditioning, orchestras seem to be focusing much more on technical perfection. Quite a few great players of the past would have a difficult time winning an audition today because while the examples I am thinking of were outstanding musicians, they missed some notes.
  • that even a fraction of the music students now in school will be able to support themselves with traditional playing jobs. 
  • that the traditional classical music concert is not intimidating and confusing to newbies. I was struck by a friend's first experience at the symphony. She didn't know how to find information in the program and so had no idea who was performing or what they were playing. And yes, this was an intelligent woman.
  • that the event of recordings, followed now by a tsunami of ways to listen to performances hasn't caused all interpretations to move to the middle. The eccentric, and often interesting, interpretations of the past are now a rarity. It can also be an incentive to stay home and listen rather than dress up and travel to hear a live concert.
  • that change isn't necessary. Change might be just the thing classical music needs. There are already signs that this could be true. Classical musicians are giving concerts in unusual locations, like bars. Musicians are talking to the audience at concerts. 
I go to a lot of concerts. I love classical music and the standard repertoire. I sincerely hope that classical music will continue to be important - it communicates with us in a way that no other art form does, and connects us to the past. It is a lively world with great ideas and wonderful people. May it evolve and thrive!