Roman Forum 2006

Roman Forum 2006
Foro Romano, from the Palatine Hill - a favorite photo from one of my favorite cities

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Bloggo Mediterraneo: The “Mediterranean Spirit” Concert by the Greenville Symphony

Quattro Compositore, ou quatre compositeurs
due Italiani,
e deux Français = Mediterranean Spirit

This at least is the formula conceived by the powers-that-be of the Greenville Symphony Orchestra (GSO) for the final concert offered in the Chamber Music Series this season. The Italians are Gioacchino Rossini and Luigi Cherubini, the French Georges Bizet and Jacques Ibert. While there is little in common among them musically, three were best known for their operas, and all four worked primarily (albeit in different eras) in the city of Paris!
April in Paris
Of course Paris is several hours from the Mediterranean Sea, n’est-ce pas? The title of the concert intrigued but also puzzled Dottore Gianni before he saw it, and continues to puzzle him after the fact. Better to have called it l’esprit de Paris…and it would also have rhymed. But the doctor will not complain, as he heard, for the season finale, two pieces fairly interesting and well played, and two others very interesting and brilliantly played. If the good doctor had left at intermission, as did the two overly perfumed dotty ladies sitting to his immediate right, he might have been, if not disappointed (as the two smelly old gals clearly were), at least less than fully enthused. 

Fortunately Dottore Gianni stayed!

Maestro Edvard Tchivzhel opened the concert with Rossini’s overture to
Gioachino Rossini
, a tragic opera, not unlike Hamlet, the program notes and Tchivzhel asserted. I must admit that having read the note “The legendary Babylonian Queen Semiramis is killed by her own son, when he attempts to avenge his father’s death,” the plot seemed more reminiscent of another play, and when Tchivzhel chatted about the opera to the audience after he finished conducting the overture (as is his wont at the chamber music concerts, and a delightful wont it is), saying that it was the story of a queen killed by her son in revenge for her killing his father, it struck me that the appropriate ancestor was not Hamlet but Orestes, as presented in Aeschylus’s ancient Greek trilogy The Oresteia (specifically in the second play, called The Libation Bearers), as well as in Sophocles’ and Euripides’ versions of the story, both titled Orestes. One could also reference Oedipus Rex, in which Jocasta marries her son Oedipus, not realizing that he is her son. Semiramis (or Semiramide in Italian, thus Rossini’s title) declares her love for her son, not knowing he is her son until he tells her that he is – this info having been revealed to him by the ghost of his father, who also lets him know that it was his mother who murdered him.

What a wonderfully sick plot! And typical of the dark gruesome tales that are the foundations of western theatre. But more Greek than Shakespeare, wouldn’t you agree?

Dottore Gianni loves learning, and he learned a thing or two at the concert. He first learned something he probably should have been aware of as he has heard overtures by Rossini before, as well as by Mozart and others of approximately overlapping eras. Unlike overtures to musicals today for example, which include snippets of several melodies incorporated in the shows they introduce, most overtures in eighteenth and early nineteenth century operas do not tease with melodies that will be explored later in the performance. Instead they invoke the spirit of the opera to follow, preparing the audience in a less obvious, slightly subtler manner for what is to come.

He also learned that some women wear too darned much perfume!

The good doctor learned even more after the concert, as he researched the composers. Rossini (1792-1868) lived and trained in Bologna in his youth
Bologna, from the Torre deli Asinelli
taken by Dottore Gianni in April 2006
and then moved to Paris, pumping out 39 operas (some in Italy, some in France), many of them very popular in his lifetime, several still performed regularly. He wrote a good bit of other music, religious and orchestral, as well and then took an early, long and lucrative retirement in Paris before he was 40! Any schoolboy will know two of his works: The Barber of Seville and William Tell (the latter for its overture more than for the full opera), but he also wrote La Cenerentola (Cinderella), The Italian Girl in Algiers and many other comic operas along with a few including Tancrede and Semiramide in the serious opera genre. Rossini overtures often figure in symphony concerts as opening pieces as they are short, vibrant and lyrical. It’s great way to begin a concert, and the Semiramide Overture was very well played by the GSO.
Rossini was buried at Pere Lachaise in Paris, shown here, but the tomb
is empty! His body was taken back to Italy and buried there.
The things Dottore Gianni knows!
Luigi Cherubini (1760-1842) interests me because he wrote before, during and after the French Revolution, and one of my favorite courses while I
taught at Ithaca was a seminar on performing arts and that cataclysmic event. One of Cherubini’s operas, Lodoïska, set the vogue for “rescue” operas (in which a character is rescued from unjust imprisonment), the most famous in that genre being Beethoven’s only opera, Fidelio. Though Lodoïska is set in Poland and Fidelio in Spain, both comment on the French Revolution. Lodoïska was written and performed at the Théâtre Feydeau, where Cherubini was house composer. It premiered in 1791 early in the Revolution, before it grew rabid and bloodthirsty, and was a great success in Paris. This was due in part to the scenic spectacle, which was a hallmark of the Feydeau’s style. As described in Wikipedia:

In a spectacular scene that helped to make the opera a hit in Paris, one of the castle walls is blown up, then crumbles to reveal the battlefield outside.”ïska

Hmmmm…might have reminded the audiences of the storming of the Bastille, which had occurred almost exactly two years before. Cherubini had come to Paris from Italy via London where three of his operas were performed at the King’s Theatre. Once in Paris he settled there, was introduced to and admired by Marie Antoinette among others. One writer noted that

Cherubini must have been a deft operator to survive the turbulent years of 1786–1816 in France so successfully…He seemed not to put a foot wrong. Pre-revolution, he was much favored by the royal court (notably by Marie Antoinette) and by the king's brother, Monsieur. Then, during the revolution, the general public enjoyed him - particularly his operas - just as much.

After the Revolution Cherubini was favored by Napoleon as well, so whatever he was doing to keep out of trouble with various factions, it was working! In 1815 he wrote another work, a beautiful Requiem Mass, to commemorate Louis XVI on the anniversary of his execution, musical evidence that the composer’s sympathies lay with the ancien regime vs the sans culottes. Louis XVII, who succeeded Napoleon on the throne of France, gave Cherubini a prestigious post. This may indicate that he had to work harder at being safe during the revolution and its increasingly “zealous” leaders. However his opera Eliza was a great success in 1794, at the height of the reign of terror. Go figure.

In a side note, Maestro Tchivzhel, in commenting on Cherubini, noted that he was very even in his mood – always irritable! In my brief research I saw that this statement was verified by a contemporary of the composer’s Adolphe Adam, who wrote,

"Some maintain his temper was very even, because he was always angry."

For a man whose name includes "cherub," anger is probably not an appropriate constant mood! Perhaps Cherubini is moody/angry because he's not played much today, though his fellow-composer Beethoven pronounced him not merely a master, but an immortal. The work we heard the GSO perform, his only symphony, in D Major, did not do much to convince Dottore Gianni of this statement. But the good doctor wonders if the problem lay not in the work itself but in its execution. The work is composed in the usual four movements:

I.              Largo-Allegro
II.           Larghetto cantabile
III.         Minuetto non tanto
IV.         Allegro assai

As Dottore Gianni writes this he is listening to a recording of the symphony, which is quite pleasing, while the performance by the GSO seemed forced, with an imbalance between the winds/brass and the strings. They got through it, but seemed to be working too hard to do so, and possibly because of that there was little pleasure to be had from it. Of course Dottore Gianni does not pretend to be a real music critic, but he thinks he might be able to put his finger on a few other works this season in which a forced quality was apparent. Might one of the differences between a good orchestra and a great one be that at times the former succeeds very well indeed, but many times does not, while the latter can be counted on to please nearly all of the time?

So while some in the audience were pleased, indeed transported by the symphony, crying out at the end of it, the work left me not cold, but not more than lukewarm either.

But after intermission…aaaah!

Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was known for his operas over his orchestral music. In fact he wrote only two symphonies, No. 1 in C Major and another 
known as the Roma. The first he dashed off in a month as an academic exercise when he was seventeen. The second he took years to write, attempting to musically describe different areas in Italy. We heard the Symphony No. 1 at the GSO concert and we can be grateful that we did, because Bizet thought little of it. Having completed the "academic exercise," the youthful composer stuffed it into a closet and forgot about it. After his death his widow gave it to the library at the Paris Conservatory, where it continued to languish on some shelf or in a cubby hole of some kind until 1933, when Bizet’s first English-language biographer brought it to the light of day. It premiered eighty years after it was written and was immediately acclaimed. A happy end for music lovers, but a sad story for the composer.

Perhaps this is a lesson for Dottore Gianni. He should dust off his first play, Earth’s Assassins, one that he wrote for some class or other, and allow the world to rejoice in its brilliance…

Jack to Dottore Gianni: STOP!!!…I did just re-discover this script and it shall remain in my closet until my ashes are scattered to the winds, at which point, rather than be read or performed by ANYone it will be consigned to the dustbin of history. It’s a “green” play…apparently “we” (that would be a family surprisingly similar to my own) are destroying the earth by neglect – earth’s assassins are…US! Oi!

If you look closely at Bizet’s dates, you’ll see that he died young, when he was less than forty years old. Do you know what many think killed him? Only his most impressive success, the opera Carmen. Maestro Tchivzhel called it the greatest opera of all, but while Dottore Gianni thinks it’s wonderful, it is not HIS favorite, and therefore not the greatest. Bizet knew it was risky to write about people living in his own age, as opera was normally about heroic sorts centuries away from the present. To create a leading character as a cigarette girl (and that’s a euphemism folks) was dangerous.

In fact changes were occurring in the arts and society during the mid-
nineteenth century, especially in Paris, which was the cultural center of the era. I’m currently reading a very good book by Ross King (who sprang on the scene with a great little book, Brunelleschi’s Dome) called The Judgement of Paris, about an old school artist named Meissonier
 whose paintings could be compared to old-fashioned operas and a new school artist named Manet whose paintings shocked by painting current subjects, and not wealthy families but women like Olympia, who earned her living with her body.

Manet, a self-portrait

In the French theatre of the day writers such as Alexandre Dumas-fils and Emile Augier were writing some of the earliest “realist” plays, the most famous by each featuring a prostitute as the leading character. Marguerite in Dumas-fils’ La Dame aux Camélias (which was later operatized by Verdi as La Traviata) and Augier’s Olympia’s Marriage, the first a “whore with a heart of gold,” the second a whore with no heart at all.

Manet's Olympia
Bizet shocked Paris – the first performance was booed by the audience and panned by the critics. His health went into a serious decline and in three months he was dead, some said by suicide, others by a broken heart. The opera was revived and hailed as a masterpiece, but Bizet did not live to see that.

But back to Bizet’s Symphony No. 1 in C Major! It was composed in four movements:

I.              Allegro vivo
II.           Andante-Adagio
III.         Allegro vivace
IV.         Finale: Allegro vivace

The GSO was at its best playing this beautiful work. There are beautiful melodic passages throughout, and while I did not hear in the Finale “hints of the bullfight in Carmen” that Dr. Joella Utley, who wrote the program notes for the GSO concert, did, I was mightily impressed by the music, by Tchivzhel’s conducting and by the strong performances by the musicians. I might add that Bizet was strongly influenced by one of his mentors, Charles Gounod (about whom I wrote briefly when music from his opera Faust was performed by the GSO). Bizet had in fact been engaged to transcribe Gounod’s own first symphony for two pianos, so he knew the score intimately, and Bizet’s first is very like Gounod’s in some passages following it note for note. This has been called un hommage to Gounod by his admiring student, but it might also be thought to be a case of plagiarism. Of course students learn by copying, to an extent, and copy Bizet did. He also produced a symphony finer than his teacher’s, an astonishing work for a composer of any age, much less for one still in his teens.

I think a bit of Mozart as portrayed in Amadeus. At one point Salieri plays a short piece for Mozart, in order to praise the younger composer, but Mozart, after thanking Salieri, says something to the effect of, “It’s very good, but what if you were to do this with it?” Then he sits down and embellishes Salieri’s composition, creating in an instant a clearly finer piece of music out-mastering the master.  Bizet never intended to one-up his own master, Dottore Gianni is certain, but according to general critical consensus, he did so.

On now to the final work in the concert, Divertissement by Jacques Ibert
(1890-1962). Ibert is probably the least well-known of the four composers featured in the program. Like the others he wrote operas, but was better known for works in other genres, and unlike the others he was Parisian born and bred. His musical studies were interrupted by World War I, in which he served as an officer, and much later his musical career was thwarted somewhat when it was black-listed in World War II by the pro-Nazi Vichy government in France, and Ibert made the wise choice to exile himself. In spite of such setbacks he still managed to make much music in different genres and styles. In fact he refused to be categorized as a practitioner of any one style of music, and his music has been dubbed “eclectic” by critics. A useful word, eclectic, when you really don’t know what to say about an artist’s range or talents. At least that’s what Dottore Gianni thinks, and what Dottore Gianni says goes, at least in this blog (and probably nowhere else except perhaps in the silence of his lonely room.)

I noted that Ibert wrote several operas. Perhaps it’s a function of being an artist in the twentieth century, but was better known for scores and incidental music for plays and for more than a dozen films. Two of the films were English-language movies. The first was Orson Welles’s 1944 black and white and bleak Macbeth, in which Welles also starred as the Scottish king. And boy was Welles Scottish! He insisted that the entire film be done in a thick Scottish brogue. When I saw it I found it not merely thick but almost impenetrable. The second was a sequence for a circus ballet in Gene Kelly’s film Invitation to the Dance.

I mention the films in passing. But the piece we were treated to at the GSO concert, was created out of music that Ibert had penned for a play, a production of the mid-nineteenth century French farce by Eugène Labiche called Un Chapeau de Paille d’Italie or The Italian Straw Hat – interesting aside: the same play was adapted in 1936 and re-titled Horse Eats Hat
Horse Eats Hat - that's Joseph Cotton on the left.
I display this photo to show the silliness of the play - same applies to Ibert's music
for the short-lived but vital Federal Theatre Project (FTP). The director? Orson Welles, who also performed in it. Many of the actors that Welles used in the particular project that he and John Houseman for the FTP came with him when he started the also short-lived but vital Mercury Theatre, and from that to two of Welles’s great films, Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Andersons.

Excuse Dottore Gianni! He has unintentionally recounted more about Orson Welles than about Jacques Ibert! Mon dieu! Sacre bleu! Back to Ibert, please! Divertissement is made up in part by Ibert’s music for The Italian Straw Hat, the plot of which is ridiculously farcical, focusing on the frenzied attempts of a bridegroom running around on his wedding day in search of an Italian straw hat that he has ruined. Ridiculous complications ensue, and the music Ibert wrote suits the crazy nature of the play perfectly. It is written in six short, snappy and satirical movements:

I.              Introduction
II.           Cortege
III.         Nocturne
IV.         Valse
V.            Parade
VI.         Finale

The introduction is a quick-moving, noisy affair, depicting busy Paris streets. While a cortege is associated with burials, this one is hardly funereal, instead mad-cap, and includes a parodic quote not from a funeral but from a famous wedding march, that in a mid-nineteenth century (1842 if memory serves the good doctor, and in this case it does) German production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, whose songs and incidental music had the good fortune to be written by Felix Mendelssohn. The nocturne is actually quiet and nocturnal, an anomaly in this otherwise wacky piece of music. The waltz (valse) makes great irreverent fun of Strauss’s Blue Danube, the parade parodies parade sounds zestily, as the music conveys the feeling of a parade approaching and passing by, and the finale is sheer musical mayhem.

I’ve not had the pleasure of meeting Maestro Tchivzhel, but he seems to have a wicked sense of humor. In introducing Divertissement he discussed the piano solo that begins the final movement wittily. To paraphrase him, he said that “the piece begins with a lovely piano solo…(then a pause and a smile)…one that is played as if a horse is clumping across the keyboard, or as if a drunken man was trying to play the piano with his feet.” At one point in the finale the Meastro suddenly stopped conducting (though the orchestra continues to play), and turned to the audience. I thought he was going to make more witty remarks, but instead he started blowing a whistle loudly, in time with the music of course, but brilliantly creating musical chaos. Had a percussionist blown the whistle – it is called for in the score – there would have been a quiet chuckle from some in the audience. Tchivzhel’s whistling elicited belly laughs throughout the crowd. Shortly after that a trumpeter runs onto the stage, wearing an over-sized fools cap, gets to the front of the orchestra and blows, or brays, three loud, long notes and runs off again.

Whether or not this was Mediterranean spirit it was certainly spirited, a crazy, wonderful and maybe most importantly a completely unexpected way to end the season of chamber music. Did I write “end?” The audience stood (well, it always does that) and cheered and kept applauding until Tchivzhel signaled the orchestra to play an encore…and what encore? The final movement of Ibert’s Divertissement, complete with whistle and the noisy trumpeter, all over again.