Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Bach and Time – New Year's Eve 2011

Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
and auld lang syne?

For auld lang syne, my dear,
for auld lang syne,
we’ll take a cup o’kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

And surely you’ll buy your pint cup,
and surely I’ll buy mine!
And we’ll take a cup o’kindness yet,
for auld lang syne.

Every New Year’s Eve at midnight, millions of revelers the world over stumble through these famous words by the Scottish bard Robert Burns. Last week in New York, I encountered them under glass (literally, thanks to Pierpont Morgan’s eccentric collecting habits) and marveled again at their universality: they seemed somehow less corny in the original manuscript and earliest prints. Remembering “old times” — more precisely, the unique character of past events, things, and people — is crucial. Without memory, there is no culture.

On New Year's Eve 2011, Ars Lyrica Houston will savor a few of the greatest moments in our collective musical past, with major works by J. S. Bach on the subject of time. Then we party! Please note that our 2011 New Year’s Eve Gala is upstairs in the Grand Lobby of Sarofim Hall, not the Founder’s Club as in previous years. Good luck to all at the silent auction — may everyone win at least a “pint cup,” as Burns’ lyrics suggest!

Bach and Time program:

"Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit," BWV 106

Suite in D Major, BWV 1068

"Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen" (Christmas Oratorio Pt. V), BWV 248/5

Program notes for Bach and Time:

Like most of us, Johann Sebastian Bach understood time to operate in multiple dimensions. His weekly responsibilities as the cantor and chief composer for Leipzig’s principal churches surely made him efficient with his own day-to-day time, since such a position required a new cantata every week. On a more spiritual level, Bach’s orthodox Lutheran milieu also conceived of time within a specifically Christian framework, encompassing everything from creation to eternity. God’s time (to use the locution of BWV 106: “Gottes Zeit”) is eternal, whereas human time is demarcated by salvation history, whose broad outlines are the giving of the Law, the revelation of the Gospels, and the obligation to live a moral life in the here and now.

Bach and his anonymous librettist juxtaposed all these ideas about time to great effect in Gottes Zeit ist die allerbeste Zeit (“God’s is the best time”). An intimation of eternity seems present from the opening notes of the Sonatina, whose archaic scoring for two recorders and two violas da gamba must have struck even its first hearers as an oddly quaint way to set such expressive and modern musical figures. Four singers then take center stage, for a cantata whose various sections announce that God’s time is eternal, that ours is brief, and that belief eventually leads us to a better place.

Unlike later cantatas organized around freestanding recitatives and arias, Cantata 106 looks backwards towards 17th-century models in its seamless shuttling from one kind of musical figure and scoring to another for each sentence or section of text. Given its old-fashioned form and its text, scholars have long assumed that Bach wrote this work for a funeral, most likely in 1707, at the very beginning of his career as a composer of church pieces. Its subtitle, “Actus Tragicus,” suggests a potentially broader purpose as well, in keeping with the German tradition of Trauerspiel or morality plays. Here, the tragedy is that of the human condition, which is overcome only in death through faith.

Bach’s Christmas Oratorio is actually a series of six separate cantatas for the Christmas – New Year season, each of which borrows considerable material from older compositions. Cobbled together in 1734, according to the autograph manuscript, this “oratorio” relies on the same alternation of text types and musical textures as do Bach’s passion settings, with Gospel narration by a tenor Evangelist, reflective arias for solo voices, and big “choral” movements leavened regularly by simple four-part chorales.

Part V (Ehre sei dir, Gott, gesungen), intended for the first Sunday after the New Year, begins in an irresistibly cheerful mood, with two oboes d’amore, strings, and voices tossing around the most joyous of musical ideas. The rest of this cantata focuses on the multifaceted role of the Star in the Christmas story: as signal to the Wise Men, as a light to the Gentiles, as a sign of danger for Herod, and as a beacon that continues to shine.

Perhaps the most timeless feature of this program is the beloved “Air” from Bach’s third “orchestral” Suite. Though the larger work otherwise follows a familiar French sequence of movements, complete with an initial “Ouverture” and some very fashionable dances, its best-known part is a humble little tune that Bach slips in just after an imposing opening movement—an unexpected little gift, perfect for this time of year!

© Matthew Dirst

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Paradise Found program notes

To whet your appetite for "Paradise Found" -- Sept 22 in Bryan, Sept 23 in Houston, and Sept 26 in Alexandria, LA -- here are my notes on this program. Looking forward to seeing many of you at this special set of concerts, featuring the amazing French-Italian soprano Céline Ricci.

"Paradise Found" takes us on a journey comparable to that of Milton's masterpiece, from a Scarlatti cantata’s despairing tones to the heavenly rapture of Handel’s Gloria. In between these vocal “bookends,” instrumental works from the same era illustrate how some of the finest Baroque composers shuttled seamlessly between these emotional extremes, in music that is at once affecting and transformative.

Like his father Alessandro Scarlatti and his contemporaries Handel and Vivaldi, Domenico Scarlatti composed dozens of Italian cantatas for the delectation of aristocratic and royal patrons. Though the genre’s heyday had passed, this master of the newfangled keyboard sonata retained a keen interest in the cantata across a long and productive career. The attraction appears to have been both practical and aesthetic: a genre eminently suited to the intimate cultural pleasures of the Portuguese and Spanish courts (which Scarlatti served from 1719 to the end of his life), the cantata also offered the opportunity for formal experimentation and great subtlety in expression.

Metastasio’s libretto for Pur nel sonno suggests a date of composition sometime during Scarlatti’s tenure at the court of Philip V and Maria Barbara in Madrid. This great poet, the leading opera librettist of the 18th century, had begun his literary career in Rome’s Arcadian Academy, from whose pastoral verse he borrowed stock characters for this cantata. Its “story” is delivered from the unlucky suitor’s point of view, and from the outset, the mood is dark: an Introduzione in two parts—something one might expect only at the head of a full-length opera or oratorio—is by turns aggressive and pensive. The sinewy first aria introduces a world-weary lover, one rejected by the unattainable Phyllis but unable to forget her, even in sleep; his passion remains sadly one-sided. A highly dramatic recitative follows, as the protagonist’s dream veers from lovely visions to fear and shame. His final realization—that he’ll never be free again—is given full vent in a tour-de-force concluding aria with abundant vocal fireworks.

Rameau’s harpsichord music comprises both original works and transcriptions of orchestral dances and character pieces from his popular stage works. The Air pour les Bostangis and the Gavotte are both examples of the latter type. Excerpts from Rameau’s opera-ballet Les Indes Galantes (1735), the first of these charming pieces accompanies a dance by gardeners of the seraglio (the “bostangis”), whose proprieter (the “Gracious Turk” of Act I) is but one of Rameau’s colorful “Indians.” Les Tendres Plaintes and La Joyeuse, by contrast, are more idiomatically conceived for the harpsichord. These two gems encapsulate, within the gently recursive French rondeau form, the two emotional poles of this evening’s program: from “tender complaints” to joy.

Couperin’s La Sultane would also seem, by virtue of its title, to transport us to the Orient; but this is a decidedly Parisian sultan, not an exotic harem-keeper. One of several works Couperin wrote as a kind of French response to the wildly popular Italian trio sonata, La Sultane features unusually full scoring—for two violins, two violas da gamba, and continuo—and a classic sequence of sections in contrasting tempi. Its grandiose and powerful beginning leads to a faster fugue, whose primary theme is nearly identical to that of the opening movement. A tender air and sections in contrasting quicker meters lighten the mood considerably toward the end, as all four instruments engage in concerto-like figuration.

The setting of the Gloria now attributed to Handel came to the world’s attention in 2001. Newspapers heralded its discovery as a major event, despite lingering doubts about its authenticity. If Handel wrote it, he surely did so between 1706 and 1708 in Rome, where such a blatantly theatrical solo setting of this liturgical text would have been well received by patrons who loved opera but were frequently denied it because of recurring papal prohibitions. Its seven discrete movements follow the typical divisions of the “Gloria in excelsis” portion of the mass ordinary. Handel’s virtuosic treatment of the solo voice in the joyous outer movements is noteworthy, as is the highly expressive “Qui tollis,” which makes vivid with tortuous chromatic melodies the “sins of the world.” Because the Gloria lacks a free-standing overture, we have simply borrowed one in the same key from the same composer: the three-movement sequence that introduces Esther (1718), Handel’s first English-language oratorio. ©Matthew Dirst

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Summer Festivals

The biennial Boston Early Music Festival is always a wonderful opportunity to hear some great music, browse through exhibits, and socialize with friends and colleagues from around the world. This year Ars Lyrica offered its first program on the festival fringe, for a very enthusiastic audience at Old South Church’s Gordon Chapel. (Watch for the review in the next issue of Early Music America.) Soprano Melissa Givens and countertenor Ryland Angel were the stars of our show, in music by Alessandro and Domenico Scarlatti. Bravo to our prima donna, primo uomo, and a terrific band that included violinists Adam LaMotte and Sean Wang, cellist Barry Sills, and guitarist/theorbo player Richard Savino!

Both of the BEMF operas were on my dance card, and they were something to behold. Steffani’s “Niobe, Queen of Thebes,” though not destined for standard-rep houses anytime soon, proved a marvelous vehicle for superstar countertenor Philippe Jarrousky and his hapless queen, soprano Amanda Forsythe. The score abounds in short virtuosic arias and ensembles, and contains some of the oddest music I’ve ever heard: King Anfione (Jarrousky’s role) sings an aria while dying that defies description – more chromatic weirdness that I’ve ever before heard in a Baroque opera. BEMF also revived its much-praised production of Handel’s “Acis and Galatea” to a very grateful audience. I can’t imagine a more thoughtful and right-on-target production for this delicious score. The singing was pretty incredible, too, with Aaron Sheehan, Teresa Wakim, and Douglas Williams giving outstanding performances in the leading roles. Gilbert Blin, who staged both productions, could IMHO stage the Boston phone book and we’d be enthralled.

San Francisco was next on my itinerary, where I spent a few delightful days in the cool breezy weather that this city is famous for in the summertime. (During my grad school days at Stanford I regularly took both a sweater and a jacket with me on warm days when headed to SF for the evening – things haven’t changed!) While there I saw “Siegfried” at SF Opera (thanks to Birgitt VanWijk and Rudy Avelar) in a marvelous production by Francesca Zambello, with gorgeous playing by the orchestra under Donald Runnicles, and a great cast, too.

Off to the Tetons Festival in a few weeks to play a program with Nic McGegan, then to Santa Fe to see “Griselda” and “Wozzeck.” Stay tuned for a post on the latter – can’t wait to get my Santa Fe fix with this summer’s oddest couple, Vivaldi and Berg!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A match made in Venice

Here's a great pic of Ars Lyrica performing "Monteverdi and the Venetian Style" at the opening of "Titian and the Golden Age of Venetian Painting" at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Houstonians, put this exhibit on your calendar (it closes in August); the art is simply staggering. This was a truly once-in-a-lifetime opportunity -- not that I wouldn't happily put together a Monteverdi program on the slightest pretext. Here's hoping it made the gods happy, too!

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Ars Lyrica's 2011-12 Season: Transformations

I'm thrilled to announce our 2011-12 season, which explores the idea of transformation — in bodily, spiritual, and various musical senses — in a wide variety of repertory, from early Baroque madrigals through early Classical chamber works. Highlights include the Houston débuts of some fantastic musicians, including sopranos Céline Ricci and Gillian Keith and violinist Ingrid Matthews, plus the New York Baroque Dance Company in a new production of two major works from Monteverdi's 1638 Madrigals of Love and War. There are a number of special subscription offers that expire on June 10, so visit Ars Lyrica Houston and get your tickets now.

In addition to our Houston series, we'll be visiting Alexandria LA and Austin TX this coming season, and making our second recording for Sono Luminus. The latter features Jamie Barton, Brian Shircliffe, and Joe Gaines in Domenico Scarlatti's hilarious "La Dirindina," which opened our 2010-11 season last September, and a solo cantata by the same composer with Céline Ricci.

One other quick note: Ars Lyrica is taking its final subscription program of the current season to the Boston Early Music Festival Fringe on June 15 at noon, at Old South Church's Gordon Chapel. Forbidden Pleasures should be great fun -- either in Houston on June 10 or in Boston on June 15 -- so come join us!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Baroque Festival in San Miguel de Allende

Many thanks to Melissa Givens for the following report and pics from last month's Baroque festival in San Miguel de Allende, at which quite a few Ars Lyrica regulars (myself included) had a great time! The pics are from our San Miguel production of Purcell's "Dido and Aeneas." - Matthew

Melissa writes:

Kinga and Matthew asked me to tell you a little bit about our recent trip to Mexico for the Baroque Music Festival in San Miguel de Allende. The very short version is that it was an amazing week or so of hard work and rewarding performances, and lots of great camaraderie!

For many of us, this was our first time to participate in the Festival and also our first time in Mexico. I traveled down and back with Matthew, Gerrod, and Lynelle Rowley, and the fun began as soon as we met up at IAH on Sunday afternoon (good company will do that)! There is no airport in San Miguel, so we flew into the Guanajuato/León airport and were met by a van and driver.

I have lived in Houston for over 20 years and have made my share of complaints about driving here. Let me tell you, I was cured of that by our 1.5 hour trip to San Miguel! Remember, this is mountain country and we arrived after dark. The road was narrow, with one lane in each direction and full of twists— and there wasn’t a lot of road lighting. Our driver barreled up and down the hills at breakneck speed. At one point a truck in the oncoming lane veered just a bit too far over and clipped our van at around 80 mph. The driver gamely drove on, only stopping at the next wide spot to survey the damage. Fortunately, the side-view mirror was the only casualty— unless you count our nerves.

Once we arrived in San Miguel, after discovering that a stop sign isn’t even viewed as a suggestion, we were deposited with our hosts. Mine was a lovely American retiree named Roberta, who lived in a gated complex of villas with stunning roof-top terraces. It was a wonderful place to call home during my stay.

Rehearsals began bright and early Monday. We had been warned by Festival alums that the pace of things was, shall we say, slower and more fluid, and this was certainly in evidence. The Dido rehearsals were scheduled in the theater where the show was to be performed, except it was yet bereft of a stage. So, going with the flow, Our Fearless Leader, Tara Faircloth, took us to the adjacent outdoor amphitheater that would be our rehearsal space until Wednesday.

The cast was evenly split between American (Baritone Michael Kelly, one of our team of dream colleagues, joined us there) and Mexican principals, and the wonderfully prepared and enthusiastic chorus was from Mexico City. The Second Witch, Linda Gutierrez, had recently been a winner in a Mexican opera reality show/competition. The Sailor was a sweet tenor from Monterrey named Enrique Guzmán, who wants to study opera in Houston. Our technical crew was split between Mexico City and Monterrey. The sets and costumes also came from those two cities and were delayed by a) the overturning of one truck (thankfully, no casualties) and 2) the banning of the remaining truck from the small, narrow streets of San Miguel. This would require the acquisition of a smaller truck to ferry the cargo from the outskirts of town to the Obraje Theater.

Much hilarity ensued as the production progressed and some of it was even intentional! Despite any challenges we encountered, the production was quite the success and very well received. Our Assistant Director, Rafael Felix, was a great guy who hosts a classical music internet talk show. He did a live-streaming interview with me from the lobby of his hotel. Tara Faircloth is a truly amazing director and was hugely instrumental in making the show beautiful and believable. The band was, of course, fabulous, and Matthew kept the whole thing moving and musical.

Meanwhile, the chamber music concert rehearsals were humming along, but only while there was daylight! The chapel of the Obraje was a beautiful, clean space. It had one of the most remarkable bathrooms I have ever seen, but it did not have electricity for most of the week. That and the game of musical harpsichords again required the gang to go with the flow, but these amazingly talented and professional musicians made it work and then some.

In a week of surprises, the biggest was revealed on Tuesday. Our Wednesday “Mostly Monteverdi” concert was not to be held in the Felipe Neri church as we believed, but outside, in the cloister! This is one of those things that seems ideal in theory, but proved to be rather a challenge in practice. We were fortunate to have clear, beautiful weather (save for a pop-up storm Monday afternoon), but as the sun went down, so did the temperatures, while the wind picked up. The net effect on the audience was fairly minimal, but it did make for some unintended drama on the stage (which was also being built as we arrived!) with flying scores.

We rehearsed through most of the other Festival concerts, and my interview with Rafael kept me from making the “Age of Magnificence” concert that our musicians gave, but I heard that it was as spectacular as I knew it would be.

When we weren’t rehearsing or performing, we did our best to improve the local economy, shopping, taking over restaurants and bars, meeting in small groups in and around the central park area (the Jardin), and having a memorable gathering at the home of Michael Leopold’s hosts on our last night in San Miguel. As they had been unable to attend the opera, we (Michael, Gerrod, Lynelle, and myself, with the occasional vocal continuo stylings of Matthew Dirst) presented an impromptu, 25-minute, highly expurgated version of Dido and Aeneas. It was more fun than I can tell you and quite a shame that it went unrecorded and lost to posterity! Or perhaps not...

Our San Miguel experience ended with an equally wild van ride back to the Guanajuato/León airport, only this time the drama was heightened by an empty gas tank. The van originated in Mexico City earlier Tuesday morning and needed a fill-up to get to León. Because he was running late, the driver skipped the last gas station in San Miguel, planning instead to stop at a station on the way. We eyed each other skeptically as the trip got underway. Our skepticism grew as the gas station at the half-way point was closed. As the indicator moved past E, skepticism evolved into not-quite-panic as the little towns we passed failed to yield a gas station. We were certainly on fumes as we finally got to a station just outside of León, getting us to the airport with minutes to spare for Michael’s flight.

All in all, it was a wonderful experience and I think we are all hoping to return for next year’s Festival.

I was also asked to give you an update on my life outside of Ars Lyrica. I am thisclose to finishing my doctoral degree at UH Moores School of Music and will graduate in December. Next week, I will be one of the soloists in Brahm’s Ein Deutsches Requiem with the Houston Civic Symphony under conductor Brian Runnels. Teaching voice at Houston Baptist University (I am also the area coordinator) continues to be a joy in my life and we are in the midst of end of year concerts and recitals and heading into voice juries. Our Opera Workshop just finished a run of a sterling production of scenes from Leonard Bernstein’s stage works, and this week, we are hosting renowned composer Morten Lauridsen. He is working with our select choir, Schola Cantorum, which is performing his Lux Aeterna with the First Presbyterian Church Chancel Choir on Good Friday.

Schola is also preparing to be the resident choir for the Summer Classical Music Festival in Eisenstadt, Austria. It will be the first time many of them travel out of the country. I am helping them raise funds for the trip by presenting a benefit recital on Monday, May 9 at 7:30 in Belin Chapel at the HBU Morris Cultural Arts Center. I will be singing songs and arias from the late 19th century to the modern era. I hope you can join me and help support our choir. Tickets are free, with a suggested donation of $15.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Grammy Report

The 53rd Annual Grammy Awards were quite a weekend: three ceremonies, including the televised extravaganza, plus two huge parties, all in the space of about 30 hours. The sheer number of awards is kind of staggering: there are 109 different categories, including Best Norteño Album (what's that?), Best Banda Album, Record of the Year and Album of the Year (huh?), Best Surround Sound Album (are people still doing that?), seven different categories in Gospel music (classical music gets twelve!), plus a separate set of awards for technical and lifetime achievement in various areas.

The Grammys are primarily about celebrity and secondarily about music, and once one accepts that, it's possible to have a great deal of fun watching all the famous people do their thing -- and we did! I even thought some of the pop awards were well deserved: Esperanza Spalding is a fantastic musician, whom we got to hear at the Sunday afternoon awards ceremony in a terrific number with Bobby McFerrin. Not sure what to make of Lady Gaga, but she certainly knows how to make a spectacle of herself -- though I found her leather get-up much more interesting than the big egg. And what a hoot to see Mick Jagger prancing around like he's still in his 30s!

We didn't win but were pleased to see the opera award for "L'amour de loin" be accepted by Daniel Belcher, a former HGO studio artist who is doing wonderful work these days, both in Houston and elsewhere. Sixto put together a slideshow that includes pics of three of the four Ars Lyrica nominees: myself (as conductor), Keith Weber (producer) and Ava Pine (soprano), but without Jamie Barton (mezzo-soprano), who was singing in San Diego that day instead.