Remko_Jas

JOSEPH ACHRON, MUSIC TO FALL IN LOVE WITH

 

Achron in Petersburg


Joseph Achron in Saint Petersburg  © Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.

Arnold Schoenberg firmly believed that Joseph Achron was the most underrated composer of his generation. Schoenberg praised his originality and claimed Achron’s music was destined for eternity. Yet, despite his enthusiastic praise, Joseph Achron never became a household name.

Achron Hebrew melody

Violin buffs no doubt know his Hebrew Melody, a much loved encore of many violinists, starting with Heifetz.

 

Achron Heifetz.jpg

 

Hebrew Melody, here played by Josef Hassid:

Hebrew Melody is inspired by a theme Achron heard as a young boy in a synagogue in Warsaw. It is one of his earliest compositions,  dating from 1911, and his first “Jewish” work.  In the year he composed it Achron joined the Society for Jewish Folk Music.

Achroon kind

Joseph Achron as a child in Warsaw

But let’s start at the beginning. Joseph Achron was born in 1886 in Russia and died 57 years later in Los Angeles. His mother was an estimable singer, and his father was a cantor who also played the violin. Joseph received his first violin lessons from him, but soon he was replaced by professional teachers. At age eight he gave his first performance, and by the time he was eighteen, he had finished his first compositions.

 

Achron -Living-Hall-of-Fame-of-Music-Leopold-Auer-354

© Milchen Archive

His career as a composer properly started in the twenties of the last century.  In Saint Petersburg, Achron joined the composers of the “New Jewish School.” Several years later he moved to Berlin, where he got acquainted with the works of the French impressionists, and the Second Viennese School.

 

In 1924 he made a trip of several months to Palestine. He not only performed there, but also collected a huge variety of folk music he discovered there. The notes he took during this trip were later used for several of his compositions. In his Violin Concerto No. 1,  Op. 60 (1925) several Yemenite themes can be heard.

 

Achron-with-Members-from-The-Golem-295.jpg

Joseph Achron (right) with members of the cast of The Golem. H. Leivick (center), New York.
Credit: Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection.

In 1925 he moved to New York where he was invited to compose music for the Yiddish theatre. Achron wrote the music for several of their productions, including Stempenyu, a play by Sholem Aleichem about a Jewish violinist.

The Stempenyu Suite, performed by Karen Bentley Pollick and Jascha Nemtsov:

 

In the thirties Joseph Achron moved to Hollywood, where he died in 1943.

Achron metKlemperer

Joseph Achron with Otto Klemperer (right). Klemperer conducted the premieres of Achron’s second and third violin concertos with the Los Angeles Philharmonic. © Courtesy of the Department of Music, Jewish National & University Library, Jerusalem, Achron Collection

Much of Achron’s music still awaits discovery by wider circles, although numerous attempts have been made to rekindle interest in it. Since the nineties of the last century two CDs came out with compositions for violin and piano. Different as they are, both interpretations are highly valuable, if only for the opportunity they provide to finally get to know – and appreciate – his compositions.

 

Achron Miriam Kramer ASV

On the ASV label we hear Miriam Kramer, a young English violinist, once named ‘United Kingdom’s Performer of the Year’. Her CD starts with a slightly hesitant rendition of the 1ère Suite en Style Ancien from 1906 ( a world premiere recording). From Sonata No. 1, Op. 29 onwards her tone gets steadier and in Children’s Suite it is possible to enjoy her without any reservations. Her pianist, the Dutch Simon Over, provides excellent support. The reason I am not overenthusiastic lies not with Kramer, but with Hagai Shaham, the soloist on the second Achron CD.

 (Joseph Achron: Music for Violin & Piano; Miriam Kramer, Simon Over; ASV CD QS 6235)

 

Achron Shaham Biddulph

Hagai Shaham (not related to Gil) is an Israeli from the school of the famous violin teacher Ilona Feher. His tone is warm and dark and he plays with bravura and agility, and plenty of schmaltz when necessary. Unashamed enjoyment from start to finish! If you do not fall in love with this CD, then I give up.

Shaham’s regular accompanist is Arnon Erez, also from Israel. The textbook is in two languages: English and Yiddish (Stempenyu. The violin music of Joseph Achron; Hagai Shaham, Arnon Erez; Biddulph LAW 021)

 

Achron Shaham Hyperion

Fifteen years after their Biddulph recording Hagai Shaham and Arnon Erez turned their attention to Achron’s music for a second time. In 2012 they recorded the Complete Suites for Violin and Piano for Hyperion, including the Stempenyu Suite and, of course,  the Hebrew Melody (Hyperion CDA67841).

English translation Remko Jas

 

Advertenties

SZYMON LAKS. MUSIC OF ANOTHER WORLD

 

Laks archief André Laks

Szymon Laks © Archiv André Laks

 

How many music lovers, even seasoned ones, have heard of Szymon Laks? Let alone of his music? Fate has been unkind to the Polish-French composer. Laks survived the hell of Auschwitz thanks to music: after he was taken captive, he was appointed conductor of the concentration camp’s orchestra.

Laks book

Laks wrote a book about his time in the camp, after which he became known as the ‘kapellmeister of Auschwitz’. Extremely painful. Like his son André stated: it may be true his father survived the war thanks to music, it should never be forgotten he mainly lived for music as well.

Laks Klüger

Ruth Klüger © Kerrin Piche Serna, University Communications

Ruth Klüger, a famous author, Germanist and Holocaust survivor wrote about Auschwitz in her book ‘Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered’ : “The name itself has an aura, albeit a negative one, that came with the patina of time, and people who want to say something important about me announce that I have been in Auschwitz. But whatever you may think, I do not hail from Auschwitz, I come from Vienna.”

Laks Polska Orkiestra Radiowa

© Polska Orkiestra Radiowa

Szymon Laks did not hail from Auschwitz, he was born in 1901 in Warsaw. He left for Paris in 1926 to finish his musical studies there. He studied with Pierre Vidal and Henri Rabaud and soon became part of the “Paris School.” A group consisting mainly of young, Eastern European composers like Bohuslav Martinů and Marcel Mihalovici,  with composers like Honegger, Milhaud and Poulenc as central figures.

This French school with its formal structures and neoclassical lines was a great influence on Laks, especially in his earlier works, but his oeuvre was also strongly rooted in the Polish tradition. Polish music, both classical and folk music was his biggest inspiration.

Laks deportatie

 

In May 1941 Laks was arrested and interned in the French camp Pithiviers as a foreign Jew. On July 16th 1942 he was deported from there to Auschwitz. In 1944 he was transferred to Dachau. After his liberation he returned to Paris.

Laks document

Before the war Laks worked in cinemas as an accompanist of silent films, and also played the violin in cafés. After the war all he composed, with a few exceptions, was film music.  In 1962 he started to compose again, but this period did not last very long.

Laks with son

Szymon Laks with his son André © Archiv André Laks

 

In 1967 Laks stopped composing altogether. The Six-Day War played a role in that decision, as well as the huge antisemitic wave that followed it in Poland. He told his son that he felt composing music was no longer of any use at all. The events in the Middle-East and the antisemitic excesses in Poland meant to Laks that the existence of the Jewish people was under threat once again.

The exodus of the remaining Polish Jews in  1968 did not only embitter him, but also worsened his attacks of depression which had plagued him for a long time.

Szymon Laks was an assimilated Jew who always felt more Polish than Jewish. For this reason his pre-war works were not influenced by Jewish traditions, something which changed shortly after the war.  In 1947 Laks composed his song cycle ‘Huit chants populaires juifs’ followed soon afterwards by stage music for ‘Dem sjmiets techter’ by Peretz Hirschbein.

 

ARC ENSEMBLE

Laks

The Canadian ARC Ensemble has been working on a series “Music in Exile”  for several years now. After the first two volumes with music by Paul Ben-Haim and Jerzy Fitelberg (the latter was nominated for a Grammy) they have now dedicated volume three to the music of Szymon Laks.

This CD is worth buying for the Fourth String Quartet from 1962 alone. This rhythmical work shows strong jazz influences in a classicist form. Diverse styles are affectionately combined without actually merging. Almost like passersby in a park,  greeting each other warmly, exchanging a few words, and then continuing their way. Fascinating.

How different from his “Polish” Third String Quartet from 1945 which the Canadian Ensemble recorded in the version for Piano Quintet from 1967! The Quintet has a less serious tone, parts of it are nothing more than pure entertainment. Polish folk melodies are combined with dancing passages, with every now and then time standing still, allowing you to wipe away a tear.

‘Passacaille’ from 1945 is in fact a vocalise, originally composed for voice (or cello) accompanied by piano. Here the piece is performed by a clarinet, a choice I am not entirely happy with because a clarinet simply sounds less warm than a human voice.  Simon Wynberg, the artistic director of the ARC Ensemble, sees the work as Laks’s reaction on his concentration camp experiences, expressing them in his music. Can this be true? I would like to believe it.

Passacaille, in the version for cello and piano:

Almost all pieces get their CD premiere here, but other factors make this CD a real must have as well. The quality of this long neglected music is high, of course, as are the excellent performances by the musicians. Consider buying this CD as a late reparation to the composer, who was definitely more than “kapellmeister of Auschwitz.”

ARC Ensemble records works by Laks:

LEO SMIT ENSEMBLE

Laks Pameijer

In case you want to hear more by Szymon Laks: several years ago the Leo Smit Ensemble recorded a CD with works by Laks (Future Classics 111), which includes the “Huit chants populaires juifs.” The Passacaille is included as well, in the version for flute and piano, masterly performed by Eleonore Pamijer and Marcel Worms.

 


 

 

SZYMANOWSKI QUARTET

Laks Szymanowski

Much recommended as well is the recent recording by the Polish Szymanowski Quartet (Avi 8553158). In addition to the Third String Quartet on Polish themes by Laks from 1945 it includes the String Quartet by Ravel and the Nocturne & Tarantella op. 28 from 1915 by Karol Szymanowski. It is fascinating to compare their performance of the “Polish Quartet” with the adaptation for Piano Quintet by the ARC Ensemble.

 

A few years ago Apple Republic Films started a series of documentaries on Polish-Jewish composers: the Masters Revival Series. In 2012 they made a film on Szymon Laks in collaboration with the composer’s son:

English Translation Remko Jas

Dutch original:  SZYMON LAKS. Muziek uit een andere wereld

See also:
MIECZYSŁAW WEINBERG: ‘THE PASSENGER’. English traslation

DONIZETTI: LES MARTYRS (English translation)

 

martyrs

 

Les Martyrs, an almost forgotten grand opera by Donizetti started its life as Poliuto. The French libretto by Eugène Scribe was based on Polyeucte by Pierre Corneille from 1642 which was impregnated by the vision of its author that free will is a deciding factor in life.

 

Martyrs Polyeuctus_of_Meletine_in_Armenia_(Menologion_of_Basil_II)

Polyeuctus of Melitene in 10th-century Byzantine miniature from the Menologion of Basil II

Because of the choice of the topic – the life and martyrdom of Saint Polyeuctus – the censor had Poliuto banned, and opening night was cancelled. It was forbidden to show the persecution of Christians on stage in Naples at the time.

After Donizetti arrived in Paris he commissioned a new libretto from Scribe and rewrote and expanded the overture and composed several new arias for the title character.

He also changed the first act finale and added the required ballet music. He then considerably toned down the romantic entanglements and stressed the religious aspects even more.

In his big aria at the end of the second act Poliuto complains about the supposed disloyalty of his wife and speaks about the jealousy that torments him. His “Let me die in peace, I do not want anything to do with you, you have been unfaithful to me” from Polyeucte has been changed to the credo (now at the end of the third act): “I believe in God, the almighty father, creator of heaven and earth….”

Despite its early successes the Martyrs failed to hold the stage. Instead Poliuto made it’s return, albeit on few occasions. After 1920 the opera was performed only sporadically (a remarkable fact: in 1942 Poliuto was performed on the occasion of Hitler’s visit to Mussolini, the title role sung by Benjamino Gigli).

Thanks to Callas, who rediscovered the opera in 1960,  a short revival came about. Her live recording from La Scala with Franco Corelli left me cold. The reason for that I only understood later when I heard the live recording with Katia Ricciarelli and José Carreras. In an opera with vulnerability as its main theme big dramatic voices sound out of place.

martyrs-poliuto

In October 2016 Opera Rara recorded Les Martyrs in the studio, followed by a concert performance in November.

 

53b45-les-martyrs-joyce-el-khou-012

Joyce El-Khoury and Michael Spyres

Joyce El-Khoury, clearly following in the footsteps of Leyla Gencer, is the perfect Pauline: dreamy, loving and fighting like a lioness (nomen est omen) for the life of her husband who turned into a Christian. A husband she does not even love. Only because she believed her former fiancé was dead she has agreed to be married off to her father’s protégé.

In “Qu’ici ta main glacée” she sounds very vulnerable,  moving me to tears (her pianissimi!). “Dieux immortels, témoins de mes justes alarmes,” her confrontation scene with Sévère, her lover she believes to be dead (a very impressive David Kempster) is simply heartbreaking.

Michael Spyres is a very heroic Polyeucte. In “Oui, j’irai dans leurs temples” he sings a fully voiced, perfect high “E.”

The orchestra under Sir Mark Elder is on fire. The three ballet scenes halfway though the second act lighten up the mood a little, however briefly.

Much praise as well for the perfect singing of the Opera Rara Chorus (chorus master Stephen Harris).


English translation: Remko Jas

GAETANO DONIZETTI
Les Martyrs
Joyce El-Khoury, Michael Spyres, David Kempster, Brindley Sherratt, Clive Bayley, Wynne Evans a.o.
Opera Rara Chorus; Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment under Sir Mark Elder
Opera Rara ORC52

Interview with Joyce El-Khoury: Interview with JOYCE EL-KHOURY (English translation)

See also: POLIUTO

Interview with JOYCE EL-KHOURY (English translation)

 

Joyce Behamou

Joyce El-Khoury © Julien Benhamou

 

The first time I met Joyce El-Khoury was by coincidence. We happened to sit next to each other during opening night of Gounod’s Faust at the National Opera and started an animated conversation, which continued during intermission and after the opera had ended. We got along so well, in fact, that we soon made an appointment to continue our conversation elsewhere.

Joyce Michael

Joyce El-Khoury with Michael Fabiano in Amsterdam

A few days afterwards we meet at an almost deserted outdoor café on Rembrandt Square. The weather is gorgeous – the sun reflecting itself in our wine glasses. El-Khoury loves Amsterdam, and cannot get enough of the city.

In November 2014 El-Khoury will return to Amsterdam for Musetta (La Bohème) and the prospect to spend six entire weeks there already makes her happy. She immediately discards my remarks on the weather in November and December.

“I simply love the city, regardless the weather. The atmosphere is unique and the people are so friendly! I love Amsterdam.  Everyone is free here, or at least seems to be. The city is a huge inspiration to me. The only problem are the bikers, they scare me a little!”

The Canadian soprano, born in Beirut, is a star in the making. Opera News wrote about her: “Canadian Soprano Joyce El-Khoury’s sound is enormously satisfying — a full lirico-spinto soprano with a genuine radiance about it”.

Joyce Violetta

As Violetta (La Traviata) at the Dutch National Opera

The Dutch public can attest to this. In May 2013 El-Khoury made an unexpected and overwhelming debut as Violetta in La Traviata at the National Opera. In May 2014 she stole the hearts of the NTR Saturday Matinee audience with a deeply moving performance of Rusalka in Dvorak’s opera of the same name.

“The Matinee is even better than sinking into a warm bath. The public is so incredibly sympathetic and kind, you can feel their love, which really makes you feel good, feel loved.  You feel like … no, this feeling cannot be described. Also the organisers, the rehearsal assistants … The most beautiful moment to me came when the orchestra started to play and our voices blended with the sound of the orchestra for the first time.”

“And then we had James Gaffigan to conduct us …. I have no words for him. He breathed along with us. He was one of us, and stood above us at the same time. But also next to us. This Rusalka has been the highlight of my life thus far. Singing is a privilege, but singing at the Matinee in Amsterdam. I had the time of my life…”

Beirut and Canada

Joyce El-Khoury was born in Beirut and moved to Canada when she was six years old.

“I am a Canadian and I feel at home in Canada, but my soul, my heart, my everything stayed behind in Lebanon. Most of my family, for example, lives there. If my grandparents would not spend half of their time here, and half the time in Lebanon, I would miss them terribly. My heart is Lebanese, and I hope to spend some more time there one day.

“My father had a beautiful voice, but it was my grandfather George who was the famous singer. Well, famous, when he walked down the street people yelled Kyrie Eleison at him. I sang in the chorus as well, it helped me a lot when we first settled in Ottawa. Everything was new there, and I missed Beirut terribly, but singing comforted me.”

“I never thought about making singing my profession, I wanted to be a doctor. Or a nurse. I even worked in a children’s hospital for a while. My parents did not think that was a very good idea, though. “You have such a perfect and beautiful voice, you really need to do something with it” they said. They not only stimulated me, but also helped me to find my path in the manner that suited me. Unconditional love, indeed.”

“I function best under stress, I need to be challenged. I am sort of a workaholic: even on vacation I always take my score with me.”

El-Khoury’s current repertoire includes many classical and less famous roles by composers like Donizetti, Verdi and Puccini. Language does not seem to play a role for her.

“I have been very lucky: languages, to me, come quite easily. Learning a language almost goes by itself, it is all very natural for me. Maybe because I was raised bilingual (Arabic and French), with English added later.

I have an affinity with languages, and I love to sing in Czech or in Russian. “

Rusalka

joyce-rusalka

Rusalka in Amsterdam © Lieneke Effern

“Rusalka is in love, like someone who is in love for the first time. She dreams and believes her dreams are the truth. She is invisible to the prince, nothing more than a wave. She can only be united with him in the foam on the waves, but she wants to be seen too!”

“I am not sure whether the prince loves her…. I think he is fascinated by her. She is a great unknown, a beauty, a mystery. But she does not speak, so he does not know what to think anymore. You may think that is horrible, but you can hardly blame him. She is weird, which scares him a little.”

“Rusalka becomes truly human the moment she forgives. By forgiving she transforms into a human being. I think the opera enables us to study human emotions.”

Finale third act Rusalka from Amsterdam:

 

La Boheme

joyce-musetta

Musetta (La Boheme) in Amsterdam ©Lieneke Effern

“There is not a lot of difference between Musetta and Mimi, I think. I have sung both parts, and I love them equally. Musetta may appear more superficial, but she is not. She is just better at hiding her emotions and feelings. To the world she is happy and strong, and a big flirt as well, but inside she is a little bird. She genuinely loves Marcello, and is afraid of being hurt. It all shows in the final scene.”

With Michael Fabiano during rehearsals for La Boheme in Ottawa, El-Khoury sings Mimi

 

“The most emotional moment in the opera, to me, comes in  the second act, when Mimi says: “”Io támo tanto.”  My voice always breaks there for a moment.”

“I need to feel something. I need to have a connection with a role, and understand the character. I have to be challenged emotionally. When I do not feel anything, it  becomes too mechanical and detached. I also think you need to keep your emotions in check, though, however hard that may be. Otherwise your throat blocks, and you cannot sing.”

Trailer of the Amsterdam production, El-Khoury sings Musetta:

Suor Angelica

When I am banned to the moon and can only take one opera with me that would be Suor Angelica! For the drama, but also for the music. The music comforts me, and gives me a warm and good feeling. And then there is that beautiful ending,  the wonder that everything ends well!”

“This role also brought me where I am now. I was hired to sing Loretta in Gianni Schicchi during the Castleton Festival in 2010, but I was also the understudy for the singer who sang Angelica. She fell ill during opening night, and very gladly I took over. Under the circumstances they reversed the order: first Schicchi and then Angelica. Maestro Lorin Maazel was most helpful.”

“Later Maazel took me to Munich and even to China! I will miss him terribly: he was my mentor, teacher, supporter and friend.”

Final scene from Angelica, Castleton:

 

La Traviata

“I have learned a lot from Renata Scotto, mainly about body language: the things you do when you not sing. We have worked together in Palm Beach on a Traviata she directed in which I sang the lead. “

“I sang my very first Violetta in 2012 in Wales, then Amsterdam followed. I thought the Amsterdam production was very beautiful.  I had watched the DVD many times, and understood the clock straight away, but the business with the couch had to be explained to me. I thought it was a tremendous experience.”

La Traviata from Palm Beach directed by Renata Scotto:

 

What is your dream role?

“Thaïs! Preferably with the gorgeous costumes they had in Los Angeles. I also love Butterfly. The part lies slightly higher than other Puccini roles, but I think it suits me. I also want to sing all three Tudor queens.”

Joyce Maria S

As Maria Stuarda in Seattle

“I am not sure it will ever happen, but I would love to sing Salome” she adds with hesitation. “Actually, I would love to be a conductor, I love being in charge!”

English translation: Remko Jas

Interview in Dutch: JOYCE EL-KHOURY
About Les Martyrs: DONIZETTI: LES MARTYRS (English translation)

 

LE ROSSIGNOL ET LA ROSE: Interview with CHEN REISS.

Chen Reis

© Paul Marc Mitchell

In march 2015 Chen Reiss appeared on the stage of the National Opera in Amsterdam. She kindly took some time off from her heavy rehearsal schedule to answer my questions.

The evening we meet in the canteen of the National Opera, Chen Reiss is tired, very tired. It was a long day of rehearsals, from 10:30 until 18:00!!! With a break, but nonetheless…

She had arrived in Amsterdam six weeks earlier to study Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and Simon McBurney’s staging requires great physical efforts of the entire cast.

Not easy, especially not if you happen to be a mother as well, travelling with a daughter who is almost two years old. It is impossible to keep up with the daily news this way, which is a blessing, in a way, because most of that news does not exactly cheer Reiss up.

 

Chen

© Paul Marc Mitchell

“I am extremely pessimistic and scared. As a Jewish and an Israeli woman I feel less and less at home in Europe. I am deeply worried, and fear everything will go awry. Not a very nice perspective, certainly not for a parent. Fortunately enough I am too busy to listen to the news. I have breakfast at eight, with my daughter, after which rehearsals start. In the evening, when I get home, it is simply too late. I am tired, and often I need to study…”

“I love Mozart with all of my heart: his sacred music perhaps even more than his operas. Those works I love singing above everything else, the music is so beautiful! Full of passion, but stylish and elegant at the same time. Which Mozart roles I love the most? Ilia (Idomeneo), I think, but in fact I love them all equally!”

Chen Reiss reveales her Top 5 Mozart soprano arias:

“Pamina passive? I don’t believe so, on the contrary! She is extremely brave and full of initiative. So much is happening to her. First she is kidnapped, then almost raped. Then her mother tells her to kill her own father. When she refuses she is scorned and cursed. She then escapes rape for a second time…  Just when you think not much else could happen to her the man she loves no longer wants to speak to her! She goes to hell and back and gets so desperate she can only think of suicide. The decision to undergo the trials and follow the man she loves to the end was made entirely by herself.  She is a hard act to follow!”

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Monostatos), Chen Reiss (Pamina)

Wolfgang Ablinger-Sperrhacke (Monostatos), Chen Reiss (Pamina) © Hans van den Bogaard 

Is it eternal love, I ask?
My question makes her laugh out loud. In opera, which love is not eternal, after all?

Reiss finds the Amsterdam production by Simon McBurney truly charming. “It all looks very exciting and beautiful, and in addition I work with fantastic colleagues. And this is the third time I get to fly!

Maximilian Schmitt (Tamino), Chen Reiss (Pamina)

Maximilian Schmitt (Tamino), Chen Reiss (Pamina) © Hans van den Boogaard

 

In Vienna I was a very high flying Waldvogel in Siegfried, which not only gave me high anxiety quite a bit but made it hard for me to follow the conductor as well ….  In my last Idomeneo production I was lifted into the air for a moment, which was rather fun.

Trailer of the Viennese Idomeneo:

“Do I ever refuse a role? Yes, surely, but only when it does not suit my voice. It is harder to decide which productions you should avoid. Often you do not know the concept until a week before rehearsals start. Then it is too late to refuse. Refusing anyhow is difficult, because you no longer will be booked, especially if you are a young singer.

This also happens to great stars, by the way. Anna Netrebko recently left a production because she could not agree with the director. Apparently it is easier to replace a world famous singer than a director. The director is felt to be the most important figure, and everything revolves around him or her.”

“I was once made to wear a very heavy hat, which physically I could not do. Not even a letter from my doctor helped: I was fired, and the concept remained. Will this ever change? Who knows. Perhaps if people would stop buying tickets?”

 

(meer…)

JOSEPH CALLEJA. January 2013 interview in English

 

 

Calleja-Simon-Fowler-Decca-1

© Simon Fowler /Decca

Joseph, finalmente mio!

An unconventional opening of an interview, perhaps, but I had good reasons for it. Our Amsterdam appointment was cancelled twice, leaving Facebook and Skype the only remaining option. Even that way, it took me quite a while to finally get hold of him.

 

Calleja Malta Simon Flowler

© Simon Fowler/Decca

Him being Joseph Calleja, one of the famous tenors of his generation, with a busy current schedule and an even busier future. He was born in Malta, and had turned thirty-five just before our interview in the last week of January 2013.

“January is an outstanding month for tenors,”  he laughed.  “Mario Lanza, Domingo, my teacher, me…. There must be something special in the January air.”

To settle all disputes: his name is pronounced ‘Kaleja.’ Not the Spanish way, or the Italian or Portuguese way. Well, that is easy for the Dutch to get right then, I say, which makes him laugh again.

Calleja has close ties to the Netherlands. After all, his international career started in this country. At age nineteen (sic!) he sang Leicester in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda for the Nederlandse Reisopera. Quite a feat, with which he impressed a lot of people. His voice was very light and sweet at that time;  his high notes supple and pure, almost like Tagliavini.

Calleja as Leicester in Bergamo in 2001:

In 2004, at the age of twenty-six he made his debut with the Dutch National Opera as the Duke of Mantua in Verdi’s Rigoletto. He had already sung the part before, in 2001, at an open air performance in the port of Rotterdam.

He still has a lot of friends from his Dutch period, and even remembers a sentence in Dutch: “eet mijn konijn niet op” (Do not eat my rabbit),

He laughs heartily at this. The anecdote is well known in the meantime, but he does not mind repeating it once more. He was seeing a Dutch girl at the time. When he visited her, he told her little sister that it was a Maltese custom to eat a lot of rabbit. The little girl grabbed her rabbit in shock, exclaiming ” eet mijn konijn niet op!”  He has always remembered the phrase since.

Joseph Calleja sings “To the canals of Amsterdam I have pledged my whole heart” at the 2013 rendition of the Grachtenfestival (Canal Festival)  accompanied by the Royal Concertgebouworchestra directed by Antonio Pappano:

Nine years ago you told me that of all current tenors the voice of Pavarotti felt closest to yours. You said: “If I were to die tomorrow, and could listen to one voice, the final voice of my life, that would be Pavarotti. He is my biggest favourite, my true idol. There have been, and there are, other big and beautiful voices, but Pavarotti remains number one for me.” Do you still feel the same?

“Yes, I do, in fact, although I have to admit I admire Jussi Björling more and more every time I listen to him. It is very well possible this has something to do with how my own voice develops.”

Your voice is often compared to that of great singers of the past In addition your career develops in an astonishingly rapid tempo. How do you feel about that yourself?

“It is true. It can be a little scary at times, everything happens so fast, which can be a burden. The audience expects you to be in top form every evening, which is impossible because the human voice is no violin. But on the other hand I would never want to miss all these fantastic experiences.”

I was speaking to Marilyn Horne a while back. She encouraged young singers to take their time, and never to rush things.

“I know, but this so difficult nowadays! I believe you do have to rush, but in a clever way. Meaning to study like crazy and work hard, but to be cautious in choosing your repertoire at the same time.”

Coming up the next four months are several radically different roles: Tebaldo in I Capuletti e i Montecchi in Munich, Rodolfo in La Bohème in Chicago, Gustavo in Un Ballo in Maschera in Frankfurt and Nadir in the Pearl Fishers in Berlin. Not to mention the concert performances of Simon Boccanegra and the Verdi Requiem. How does he switch from the lyrical Nadir to Gustavo who is definitely more dramatical?

Calleja ballo

As Gustavo in Ballo in Maschera at ROH © Catherine Ashmore

“I do not believe you need to sing Gustavo in Ballo differently than Duca in Rigoletto or Manrico in Trovatore. All those roles were written for the same type of tenor. True, the orchestras were smaller then, and the tuning was lower. That does put extra pressure on a tenor nowadays. You have to sing higher and louder than intended. Every singer goes his own path, and you make mistakes on the way, but it is possible to learn from those mistakes.”

“Certainly, I made some mistakes myself. My first La Bohème came too soon, and I have also sung a few other roles too early. But like I said, you learn from that. What helps are a good, solid technique, and good advice.”

Unlike many of his colleagues you don’t mind modern stagings.

“Respect is all I demand. I do my job, a director hopefully does his. I need to trust the director, believe that he knows what he does, and why he is doing it. I leave judging a director to the audience and the critics. Singers are not supposed to do that. We do not have to agree on everything, but we do need to respect each other.”

What if a director wants to put you on stage naked? As a singer you are already vulnerable fully dressed! Would you go that far?

“I would not know, honestly. Luckily nobody has ever asked me to strip, although I did sing a Duca in my boxer shorts once.”
Kidding aside: “if you only did the things you liked, you would be out of work ten out of twelve months. So I only say no when something can harm my voice.”

callejalanzacd

In January and February 2013 Calleja toured Europe with the program of his CD Be my love – A Tribute to Mario Lanza. Pavarotti, Domingo, Carreras; almost all tenors of hat generation idolized Mario Lanza and his movies. But you were not even born yet when he died. How does someone of your age got to know him?

“When I was young I played in a rock band. My uncle felt I had to listen to some good music, so he made me watch all these Lanza movies. That is how my love for opera started. What a fabulous singer! On his own, he had the charisma of four or five tenors. I also have all his CD’s. And I do not care one bit he sang with a microphone.”

“I have nothing against crossovers, especially not when done right. What does crossover even mean? For me it means having fun, making good music. I am not Mick Jagger or Robbie Williams. I am and will always remain an opera singer. But when done the way the three tenors did it, for example, I love it!”

“Why does an opera house have to be the only place where opera is sung? In the past men in Italy, and in Malta too, used to bring serenades by singing opera arias. The women stood in their open windows, like in a opera box. That is the way my teacher met his wife. Were not opera singers hundred years ago the pop singers of now? Well, on Malta they certainly were!”

I tell him I dreamt the night before our interview that we met in the lobby of a large hotel. He was sitting there with all his brothers and sisters and told me he would start to include folk songs in his recitals. Does he actually sing folk music?

“Our folk music is not really suitable for a trained tenor voice. Malta is like Sardinia: the music is raw. Italian music is part of our folk tradition. We grew up in the Italian tradition, the canzoni form part of our culture.”

Calleja op Malta

© Simon Fowler/Decca

Which languages do you speak at home? English, Italian of Maltese?
“Hahaha. All of them, and all of them together at the same time!”

What do you find harder? Singing opera, or touring with a recital?
“Touring, without a doubt. You pack your luggage, unpack it, go on stage and sing, go to sleep and pack your stuff again. Sometimes you can rest for a few days in between concerts, but often you are supposed to give interviews, or show up for some event, or sing something. All of that is very tiring.”

Does that explain why I had to wait so long for my interview?
”Hahahahahaaa! I am not commenting on that!”

Calleja sings

© Michele Agius

Why do you sing, actually?

“Why do I sing?”  He ponders for a moment, apparently the question is harder than it seems. “I sing because I can express all great emotions through it: love, sadness, anger…. everything!”

English translation: Remko Jas

Het interview in het Nederlands:
JOSEPH CALLEJA

JONAS KAUFMANN & EVA-MARIA WESTBROEK. Holland Festival 2017

kaufmann-eva-maria-westbroek-jochen-rieder-at-holland-festival-2017-janiek-dam-11

© Janiek Dam

Finally the day of the much-anticipated recital by star tenor Jonas Kaufmann was there.

 

Why did Amsterdam have to wait for him so long? Too expensive, too busy, too ….? A lot of speculating went on before the concert, caused by his recent cancellations. But Kaufmann came, saw, and conquered. Star soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek and the energetic Residentie Orkest led by Jochen Rieder contributed to the huge success of the afternoon as well.

 

jonas-kaufmann-eva-maria-westbroek-jochen-rieder-at-holland-festival-2017-janiek-dam-7

© Janiek Dam

Expectations were high, and the hall was filled with fans, buzzing with excitement from the start. In spite of this, Kaufmann made a cautious start,  visibly suffering from nerves.

As much as I loved his singing (very much, in fact), in his first aria ‘Celeste Aida’ Kaufmann had problems winning me over. Part of the problem had to do with his volume. Even with the sympathetic and delicate back-up by the Residentie Orkest he was difficult to hear at times from my seat. His pianissimi and mezza voce phrases were breathtaking, as beautiful as his diminuendo at the end of the aria, but did he make a convincing warrior? Not to me.

‘La vita è inferno all’infelice’ from La Forza del Destino almost went off the rails because of the lethargic tempi. Kaufmann sang heavenly, but taken as slow as this there was hardly any tension, and the fluctuations of the voice made a quasi-artistic impression. Did this matter? No, not really, but with better tempi perfection could have been achieved.

Jonas-

© Janiek Dam

I do not know if Eva-Maria Westbroek ever sang ‘Tu che le vanità’ from Don Carlo before, but on Sunday it sounded like she had sung little else but Elisabetta her entire life. Completely immersed in the scene, she sang as if her life depended on it, flinging the aria into the hall. What an actress!

Westbroek’s emotions dominated the love duet from Otello. Thanks to her ‘Gia nella notte densa’ became the undeniable highpoint of the first half of the concert. Both singers were at their most lyrical and genuine here, treating the audience to a classic love scene that would not be out of a place in an old Hollywood classic. Involuntarily, I had to think of Laurence Olivier and Vivien Leigh and those moments of deceiving stillness before the storm.

Kaufmann will add Otello to his repertoire in a few days, and people await it like a new Star Wars movie. Personally I still have doubts which Kaufmann could not erase on Sunday. He is much more the insecure and soft lover than the ruthless warrior. But perhaps I am wrong and he will give us an Otello that will even surpass Domingo’s portrayal?

Kaufmann Walkure

I have no complaints whatsoever about the second half of the concert, not even a quibble. Wagner and his Walküre are familiar grounds for both singers who thoroughly understand Siegmund and Sieglinde. I honestly cannot think of another pair of singers who could do what they did.  Everything was there: fear, resistance, and predominantly love, a lot of love. Perfect beauty is the only way to describe it.

The orchestra also sounded much more intense after intermission. Wagner sounded much closer to them than Verdi, I felt. In particular the Rienzi-overture, performed with great panache and drive was spectacular.

There was room for a real rarity on the program as well (bravo for that!), the Preludio that Verdi supposedly composed as an overture for Otello. This piece was recorded for CD by Riccardo Chailly, but the authenticity of it has been questioned. Rightly so. It is truly a miserable thing. Besides the Jago-motive you recognize parts of the ‘Esultate’ in it too. I did enjoy hearing it nevertheless, mainly for the great enthusiasm the orchestra played it with.

This was obviously not the first time Kaufmann and Jochen Rieder performed together. Their interaction on stage was affectionate and companionable, and they supported and supplemented each other well. Very moving to see.

The ovations at the end of the concert did not seem to end. People were hoping for an encore, which did not come. Personally I would have loved to hear more too, but both singers were obviously tired, and the program already was very heavy. Besides, what on earth could you sing as an encore after the final scene of the first act of Walküre?

Kaufmann

© Ron Jacobi

Those who missed the concert might be relieved knowing the NTR recorded it for a broadcast on June the 20th. Do not miss it!

Video of the final ovations:  © Ron Jacobi

Jonas Kaufmann, tenor
Eva-Maria Westbroek, soprano
Residentie Orkest led by Jochen Rieder

Performance reviewed: 4th of June 2017, Concertgebouw Amsterdam

English translation: Remko Jas

Review in Dutch: JONAS KAUFMANN in Amsterdam