UPDATE from Aldeburgh, a small city nestled in the English county of Suffolk, notable for being the home of composer Benjamin Britten.
Saturday, April 15:
Billy Budd is the third opera of Britten that I will have performed, and so I felt it was important to utilize a few days of my sabbatical tracing the composers’ footsteps.
Aldeburgh was where Britten lived from 1947 to his death, returning to the region of his childhood after a brief stay in America during the war. He returned to the Suffolk coast of his childhood with the intention of bringing art to it and telling the story through music. Having now been here, I understand more vividly than ever how the character of the local community, the ever-present crying of seagulls, the blowing of the wind, the hissing of the stony beach as the waves recede, the alternately joyful and melancholy skies, the saturation of colors after the rain, and the mystery and solace of the surrounding farms, marshland, and coast inform his music and the personalities that inhabit his operas.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
Hello DMMO friends and music lovers. Greetings from the Vienna Coffeehouse Landtmann, where I am enjoying a newspaper, a Viennese ‘melange’, and their signature cake. This is my first return to Vienna since my student days 30 years ago (astonishing to reach an age where one can say something like that) and first time during the holidays. I have discovered the city to be even more beautiful and inviting than I remember. Last night I had the pleasure of catching up with Joseph Dennis (DMMO’s Le Chevalier des Grieux from last season’s Manon) at the Staatsoper’s performance of La fanciulla del West, where he sang the role of Nick next to Eva-Maria Westbroek’s Minnie and Jose Cura’s Dick Johnson. I met all three of them backstage after their stellar performances, and dined with Joe afterward. He shared the happy news that he will be singing three performances of Tamino in Die Zauberflöte at the Staatsoper between Christmas and New Year–his debut in the role and first lead for the company. He expressed how honored he feels to sing Flute in the city that saw that opera’s birth.
The night before, I had an onstage seat at the gilded Musikverein for a concert of the Vienna Philharmonic, right next to the double basses and timpani. The Vienna orchestra is the most unique in the world, with its particular style of playing, sound, traditions, and even its own unique instruments such as the Viennese horns, oboes, and timpani. The program was wonderful: Beethoven’s Emperor concerto–in the city of Beethoven–and Tchaikovsky’s fifth symphony. It was an unforgettable experience. Today, I will travel to the Zentralfriedhof to visit the graves of Brahms and Schubert, and the honorary graves of Beethoven and Mozart.
Vienna is actually a side trip from my primary goal–a research project to study the music and language of the Czech Republic, a project born of my unforgettable personal experience conducting Jenůfa with DMMO in 2015. I have just completed two weeks in Prague, where I have been attending almost daily concerts of opera, symphony, and new/experimental music, as well as receiving bi-weekly lessons in Czech, and of course, sightseeing. Prague is certainly one of the most beautiful of cities, with a rich history captured in its architecture. Regarding the dear but highly complicated Czech language, I can report that I am making modest gains and can occasionally read signs and even Facebook postings, and have had a few successful–albeit limited–conversations. I have met with curators of the Dvořák and Janáček archives, visited Janáček’s home in Brno, where I was allowed to play his music on his piano, and even got to play Dvoŕák’s 1879 Bösendorfer piano on a special personal tour of his namesake Museum in Prague. I heard Janáček’s Káťa Kabanová at the National Opera in Brno, the final performance of the 2016 Janáček Biennial Festival in the Robert Carson production that has graced the stages of La Scala and Madrid. The Czech people have been touchingly open and generous, as well as patient with my Czech, and I already have made many new friends and professional contacts in the brief time I have been here. And I have been enjoying the finest beer in the world–merely as part of my research into Czech brewing traditions, of course.
Still in Vienna this evening, I will hear the opening of the new Vienna Falstaff production with Ambrogio Maestri in the title role, and will return to Brno on Monday, where original manuscripts await my perusal, including Janáček’s handwritten score of his piano cycle, V mlhach (In the Mists). I then return northwest to Bohemia and Prague for another week. After that, I will board a train to Germany and spend the holidays with my son, Miklas.
It’s inspiring to be in such a musical environment here, and many a calm hour in cafes and on trains I spend preparing scores for upcoming performances–a concert with the Portland Symphony Orchestra in Maine on January 15, DMMO’s Soldier Songs the following week, and Dialogues of the Carmelites with Sarasota Opera in February and March. In April, I will return to Prague for more study, as well as make a pilgrimage to Britten’s workplace of Aldeburgh on the English coast in advance of conducting Billy Budd at DMMO this summer!
I hope to see you in January for Soldier Songs. Until then, auf Wiedersehen and nashledanou!