Lovely Cadiz

Lovely Cadiz
Cadiz - my favorite place so far in the trip to Southern Spain

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Bloggo Musico Ro-(manti)-co-co: Gounod, Liszt and Dvořák at the GSO

Ah, romance! A state of being Dottore Gianni remembers only dimly, but there you have it. The Greenville Symphony Orchestra (GSO) concert he attended last Sunday was named Romantic Nights, slightly off-putting in that the good doctor was present not of an evening but of an afternoon, 
at a matinee, more off-putting in that it was timed to coincide as closely as possible to a day that will live in infamy for Dottore Gianni, St. Valentine’s Day! To him that v-for-vile day is about a gangland massacre in Chicago, nothing more. He likes this celebratory day even less than he likes Halloween, about which he has written in an earlier blog. The GSO, however, had no idea of the doctor’s feelings and made use of the proximity of the most “romantic” day of the year to offer a concert featuring three “Romantic” composers.

Now, as any schoolboy knows (certainly any schoolboy or girl taught theatre history by Dottore Gianni…and that’s quite a few), the Romantic Movement with an upper-case R is not the same as romantic love with a lower-case r. The upper-case R word was coined by German poet/translator/ 
critic August Wilhelm Schlegel in the late eighteenth century as an apt term to characterize the new style that began to sweep Germany and the rest of Europe at the time. Schlegel was the first great apologist for the movement, and contrasted the emerging Romantic style with the classical style, using the works of Shakespeare (translating them excellently into German) and of Spanish Golden-Age poets as forebears of literary Romanticism.

In contrast, the lower-case romantic love is a very elusive term/practice (at least one that has eluded the good doctor through one marriage 
Doomed Couple 1: Dottore Gianni & his bride Joanne
and two other long term relationships, 
Doomed Couple 2: Jack on stage
with Brigid Cleary
Doomed Couple 3: Jack on stage
with Pat Nesbit
after which he threw in the towel and retired not all that honorably but quite rapidly from the field) having to do the amorous, a passionate and usually sexual affection, caring, devotion between two people.

So the GSO’s premise was off-kilter at best, I’m sure ALL of my readers will agree.

In spite of that caveat, it was quite pleasant to hear the work of saintly Gounod, the libidinous Liszt and the Slavic Dvořak on the same program.

Charles Gounod (1818-1893) spent a good bit of his time writing religious music, the best-known example the Ave Maria (which Dottore Gianni loves much more than Shubert’s version). This Parisian nearly became a Roman
Charles Gounod
Catholic priest in his 20s, but perhaps because of his artistic lineage (his mother was a pianist, his father an artist) returned to musical composition. He wrote masses and motets, two symphonies and other instrumental music including a short piece for piano called the “Funeral March of a Marionette” (evocative title, yes?) that became in the 1950s the mysterious theme music for the Alfred Hitchcock show, which I am humming as I type this. He also wrote more then ten operas, the most famous of which was based upon and named for Goethe’s gigantic dramatic poem, Faust. Interesting that the religious Gounod would become known for an opera that features the devil! But leaving that conundrum aside, it was a portion of the opera Faust that opened Sunday’s concert.

I can’t promise a short digression about Faust. Oh, I will digress, Dottore Gianni is bound to digress, but it will most likely be a lengthy digression, not a brief one, as Faust is one of the most utilized story lines in performing arts. Would you like a few examples? Of course you would! The first dramatic versions of this tale of a man who sells his soul to the devil were penned in German, in the late sixteenth century. How Christopher Marlowe
 got hold of the tale I’m not sure, though he was sent to the continent on her majesty’s secret service by Sir Francis Walsingham, and could certainly have picked it up there. Marlowe wrote a work in English, The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus, which is still quite playable today. Jude Law performed the title character a few years ago in London, I myself had several small roles in a rather dreadful wild-west musical adaptation of the play called The Ballad of Dr Faustus, set in the Gold Rush, and performed in Washington DC’s National Cathedral in the late 1970s. 
Jude Law as Faustus

Two fine actors from Arena Stage, Stanley Anderson (as Mephistopheles) and Howard Witt (as Faustus) played the leading roles. Later I made my directing debut at Ithaca College with a production of the A-text of Marlowe’s play starring Mark Leneker in the title role and Sarah Chalmers (who is now teaching at Ithaca) as Mephistopheles.

Other lesser variations for the stage followed Marlowe’s (including John Rich’s The Necromancer, or Harlequin Dr Faustus, an early eighteenth century British pantomime) until the next great version of the tale (upon which Gounod’s opera is based) was written in German during the first years of the nineteenth century by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. 
Marlowe’s and Goethe’s are easily the two greatest theatrical versions, but many others tried their hand at it, including Alexander Pushkin, Dion Boucicault, W.S. Gilbert, and in the twentieth century, among many others mystery writer Dorothy L. Sayers (The Devil to Pay), Gertrude Stein (Dr Faustus Lights the Lights, a libretto for an opera never composed that has been adapted/deconstructed by practically every avant-garde performing artist or group in the U.S. including Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, the Living Theatre, the Wooster Group – the last of which I saw), Vaclav Havel (Temptation), the sharp British group Punchdrunk (Faust in Promenade) and more.

Operas other than Gounod’s include Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust, Busoni’s Doktor Faust, Prokofiev’s The Fiery Angel and more recently John Adams’ Doctor Atomic and Randy Newman’s Faust
Gwen Verdon as Lola in
Damn Yankees
The devilishly delicious Broadway musical Damn Yankees is another variation on the theme…whatever Lola wants… Of the numerous film spinoffs we have Bedazzled and Barton Fink, as well as too many German versions to begin to mention (though most of them are titled Faust). Novels include works by Ivan Turgenev, Thomas Mann, and Mikhail Bulgakov (The Master and Margarita, one of my favorite novels ever). There are mangas and animes based on the story, even video games!

End of lengthy digression…though I’ve only just touched the surface.

What we heard of Gounod’s Faust last Sunday is a ballet based on the Walpurgisnacht portion of Goethe’s play – that is the last night (nacht) in April, when witches galore are said to dance the night away on a high mountain in northern Germany. It’s fifteen to twenty minutes of fine music, but which has little to do with the main action of the play/opera and so is usually cut from productions. However, it makes a fine opening piece for a symphony concert. It was written in seven sections:

         Dance of the Nubian Slaves
         Cleopatra and the Golden Cup
         Antique Dance
         Dance of Cleopatra and her Slaves
         Dance of the Trojan Maidens
         Mirror Dance
         Dance of the Phryne

If the above listed don’t strike you as witches, in the opera the dance of the witches becomes transformed into a feast attended by legendary beauties of the ancient world, all of whom attempt to seduce Faust. Of the Trojan Maidens, Helen of course is the seducer-in-chief, reminding any of us who love Marlowe’s play of the famous words:

Was this the face that launch'd a thousand ships,
And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?
Sweet Helen, make me immortal with a kiss.
Her lips suck forth my soul: see where it flies!

Dottore Gianni has always dreamed of a kiss that would suck forth his soul…many of you have as well…but of course it does SUCK FORTH thy soul…and when thy soul is sucked from thee where are thee? In hell, my friends, the fiery pit of hell…

However, the Greek courtesan Phryne seems to suck forth Faust’s soul even more successfully than even Helen, and wins the good doctor’s (Faust’s, not Gianni’s) affection, at which her rivals become furious and the piece ends in chaos, illustrated wonderfully in Gounod’s music. The most familiar sections musically, to Dottore Gianni’s ear at least, are the two involving Cleopatra. In characterizing the different groups that vie for Faust’s attention (and then some), Gounod is able to provide wide variations on his theme, and the orchestra takes excellent advantage of the contrasts. I’m nearly certain that I’ve never heard the entire piece, and was glad to have the chance.

You want Dottore Gianni to move on, don’t you? But he’s not going to! Instead, he offers another digression, because until today he was unfamiliar with the courtesan Phryne (pronounced more or less “freeny”). 
Phryne revealed! by Jean-Léon Gérôme
Admit it, you don’t know her either – but if you did! Reminds me of the old song, “If you knew Phryne, like I know Phryne, oh, oh, oh what a whore!” (heh heh) Briefly (heh heh again), for there are MANY stories about the exceedingly alluring Phryne, the most famous tale has to do with her trial, for profaning the Eleusinian Eysteries (some of the most sacred and secret yearly religious ceremonies, to honor Demeter and Persephone). The trial was held on the Areopagus, a rocky outcrop just below and northwest of the Acropolis where a council of elders passed judgement on those accused of capital crimes. Dottore Gianni has seen this outcrop with his very eyes. 
The Areopagus is on the right of my
photo and below the Acropolis, 2007
As a point of reference, the Areopagus is the place where, in the Oresteia of Aeschylus, Orestes is tried for the murder of his mother Clytemnestra. So…Phryne seemed to be about to lose her case when her advocate tore her clothes from her, revealing her in all her astonishing beauty. Whether out of pity, or because it would not do to condemn a priestess of Aphrodite, OR because seeing her in all her splendor rocked their world, Phryne was freed.

Now that’s not a bad lower-case romantic tale!

On now to Franz Liszt (1811-1886), Romantic icon extraordinaire, 
Franz Liszt
and also a man who had several lower-case romances as well. Did you ever see the 1991 film Impromptu? If not you should, a film about the Romantics with a great cast including Hugh Grant as Chopin, Judy Davis as George Sand, Mandy Patinkin as Alfred de Musset, also featuring Emma Thompson and Bernadette Peters (see it just for the cast, for heaven’s sake!) and last but not least Julian Sands as Franz Liszt. It’s a great, over-the-top look at several of the Romantic movement’s most famous figures, as they run roughshod over convention and polite society.

Julian Sands
as Liszt
There is so much to say about Liszt that I will only race through the highlights – the greatest pianist of his generation, inspiring the appellation “Lisztomania,” an expression of the wild responses from audiences at his concerts – he was as close as you get to a rock star in his day; a prolific and innovative composer, inventor of the form known as the symphonic poem (one of which was played by the GSO last Sunday), but also Hungarian rhapsodies, songs, dances (mazurkas, polonaises, waltzes), numerous piano etudes; transcriptions for piano of many works by other composers; and a teacher of many, many pupils. In common with Gounod he composed pieces on the Faust theme – the two Mephisto Waltzes and a Faust Symphony – and also got religion, although much later in life than Gounod, possibly to atone for his drinking and smoking and dangerous liaisons with married women and students.

Whew! I may need to read a biography on him (the Wikipedia article threatens a book-length account, and is a very dull read), or re-visit the film Impromptu, or perhaps Song Without End, an earlier film about Liszt, who is played by Dirk Bogarde, or possibly even the Ken Russell film Lisztomania, in which Liszt is performed by rock star Roger Daltrey (who?).

But for now I’ll just quote Wikipedia’s description of Lisztomania:

Roger Daltrey as Liszt
in Ken Russell's Lisztomania
 “The reception Liszt enjoyed as a result can be described only as hysterical. Women fought over his silk hand-kerchiefs and velvet gloves, which they ripped to shreds as souvenirs. Helping fuel this atmosphere was the artist's mesmeric personality and stage presence. Many witnesses later testified that Liszt's playing raised the mood of audiences to a level of mystical ecstasy.”

and note that Liszt’s thirteen symphonic poems were pieces

“of orchestral music in one movement in which some extramusical program provides a narrative or illustrative element. This program may come from a poem, a story or novel, a painting, or another source. The term was first applied by Liszt...because they dealt with descriptive subjects taken from mythology, Romantic literature, recent history or imaginative fantasy…The form was a direct product of Romanticism which encouraged literary, pictorial and dramatic associations in music. It developed into an important form of program music in the second half of the nineteenth century.”

The symphonic poem we were treated to last Sunday is one of the least performed, No. 7, the Festklange. The “fest” in the title refers to Liszt’s wedding to his mistress and already wedded Princess Caroline Sayn-Wittgenstein. She thought she had accomplished successfully an annulment of her first marriage, and so did Liszt, but alas, when he arrived the night before his wedding (score of Festklange in hand, no doubt) all set for the ceremony he found to his dismay that the Pope had refused to grant it, and the wedding never took place. We hear none of the bitter disappointment in the music, as it was composed in exuberant expectation of the nuptials. It begins with a festive fanfare and moves between lovely lyrical passages and fiery and exciting portions, including a polonaise in honor of the princess’s Polish roots and a Hungarian recruiting dance tune called a verbunkos, alluding to Liszt’s origins. The orchestra handled the musical twists and turns with confidence, Maestro Tchivzhel was nearly dancing himself as he conducted the work, finishing with a terpsichorean flourish and the work was received warmly by the audience, including Dottore Gianni.

But it leaves this Slav, a sometimes blank Czech, wondering about an alliance between a Pole and a Hungarian. Liszt certainly seems the brunt of a Polish (or Popish?) joke practiced on an unsuspecting Hungarian, or as we called them in a completely non-pc manner, “Hunkies.” 
Scary Lady! 
my Aunt Anna C
In fact this brings Dottore Gianni to recall the “Hunky” weddings he attended as a youth back in Bethlehem, PA. The reception for one of these was held in a place actually named Hungarian Hall – no air conditioning, when the dancing makes you sweat you open the windows and hope for a cool breeze! At this reception I remember being taught the Csárdás (a Hungarian folk dance derived from the verbunkos – see above in my description of Symphonic Poem No. 7 – by my huge Aunt Anna C (for Chenafalsky) whose breadth and artifially painted exceedingly high eyebrows scared the hell out of me. In this instance Anna C “taught” me the dance by flinging me around the dance floor like a sweaty wet rag. I believe I cleaned a cleaned up a good bit of the floor as I ended up sliding across it quite often through the dance – Or did Anna C mop up the floor with me? In this case I felt more like a rubber Czech than a blank one.

Speaking of Hunkies and Poles and Czechs (oh, my!), I should now move on to one of my favorite composers, the famed Slovak Antonin Dvořák, whose 
Symphony No. 8 closed the concert last Sunday.

About Antonin I have already and recently written (in my Bloggo di Musico – Taffanel & Dvořák in the hands of the GSO, 14 January 2013), so I’ll not repeat any biographical notes. Instead we’ll focus on the work performed at the concert. Dvořak wrote nine symphonies in all, the most famous of which is the last, titled “From the New World” and referred to more frequently as The New World Symphony than as No. 9. No. 8 was written in 1889 to celebrate the composer’s election to the Bohemian Academy of Emperor Franz Joseph for the Encouragement of Arts and Literature and sits somewhat in the shadow of No. 9, but for all that it is a bright and cheery piece. For those of you who like that sort of thing, here are the markings of the four movements:

     Allegro con brio
     Allegretto grandioso - Molto vivace
     Allegro ma non troppo 

Caricature of Dvořák -
for the boids?
I was intrigued by the GSO program notes, which got a bit carried away by the “bird” theme of the music. Paul Hyde, author of the notes, quoted Dvořák on the songs of birds: “These are the real masters. Before I die I shall write a fine bird symphony.” Hyde then suggests that Symphony No. 8 is the closest the composer ever came to that plan, and goes on to elaborate on the bird sounds that can be picked up throughout the piece. To Dottore Gianni at least there is a marked difference between the number of bird-like passages Hyde identifies and anything the doctor heard, though Dvořák does make much use of flute and piccolo in the piece. You might say that in Dottore Gianni’s opinion Hyde’s notes are “for the birds (“boids”, if you hail from Brooklyn).

I must say that while I enjoyed the piece I came prepared to place it as the highlight of the concert. While it was well performed and while my Czech nationalism takes second place to no one (well, except maybe to Dvořák, who was ardent in its cause) I must admit that Tchivzhel seemed trying to coax more out of either the music or the musicians or both than was to be had. Therefore, I was most pleased last Sunday with the Liszt…though I won’t characterize my response to it as mania. 

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