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Sunday Afternoon at the Opera

Your “lyric theater” program
With Keith Brown
Programming selections for the months of November and December

Sunday November 7th: Giuseppe Verdi’s Un Ballo en Maschera (“The Masked Ball,” 1859), although it came along at a time when the composer was at the height of his powers, it is not one of his best operas. Not that the musical treatment isn't up to Verdi's high standards. The Opera suffers from a mutilated libretto. It would have been suitable if the censors in Naples hadn’t forced some ridiculous changes on it. "A Masked Ball" should have been set in Europe, in Sweden actually, in the year 1791 when the Swedish monarch Gustav The Third was assassinated at a costume ball. To please the censors the scene was shifted to New England - to Boston, to be exact. There’s an element of humor in this opera that is otherwise lacking in Verdi's total operatic output, with the sole exception of a very early workUn Giorno di Regno (1840), which is a comedy. The 1975 EMI recording of Un Ballo en Maschera is graced with an internationally acclaimed cast of singers. Tenor Placido Domingo and mezzo Fiorenza Cossotto are among them. Riccardo Muti directs the New Philharmonic Orchestra and the Chorus of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden. "A Masked Ball" will be heard again today as I last broadcast it on Sunday, April 16, 1989 in a digitally upgraded LP reissue from Angel records.

 

Sunday November 14th:Rimsky-Korsakov, “The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh,” (1907). Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov was never entirely satisfied with his penultimate lyric stage work. In their collaboration composer and librettist were at odds from the first. Although the premiere of the opera was a success, the public and critics alike were confused about the extent to which the work combined mysticism and realism. Kitezh exists on two levels: a quite realistic little market town in the wilds of Siberia East of the Volga River (Lesser Kitezh), lying under the threat of attack by the Tartars, and a shimmering Shangri-La or the New Jerusalem of the Apocalypse. The inhabitants of Lesser Kitezh seek refuge in the greater city that floats upon the clouds hanging over a nearby lake. Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestration for the score of "Kitezh" was never more colorful: every page of it is full of folk like melody that is Russian to the core. The centerpiece of the 1994 Rimsky-Korsakov Festival in St. Petersburg was a production of "Kitezh" which was recorded live in performance. I broadcast the PHILPS recording of the opera on Sunday, June 9, 2002. There was another, older recording of this work in circulation in 1999 in a two-CD reissue through Danton Productions under their Lys label. This one was originally taped from a 1956 radio Moscow broadcast in high fidelity monaural sound. The Lys digital transfer is surprisingly good, making for a truly pleasurable listening experience. Vassili Nibolssine conducts the USSR Radio Orchestra and Chorus of the Bolshoi Theatre, Moscow. That Lys reissue was last heard on this program on Sunday, June 8, 2003.

 

Sunday November 21st:Purcell, Handel, Haydn, Cecilian music. Tomorrow, November Twenty Second in the traditional Christian calendar is the feast day of St. Cecilia, a second century AD Roman martyr for the Faith, who over time has come to be considered the patron saint of music. Her cult was furthered by the founding, in Rome in 1594, of the Academia Santa Cecilia. Similar societies of music lovers arose all over Europe in the century that followed. They gave concerts in her honor. In 2009 the French Naive label brought together three of the greatest examples of Cecilian music for issue on a two-CD set. England's musical genius Henry Purcell (1659 - 95) was commissioned to write four Cecilian odes in the course of his all-too-short career. The last one, "Hail, Bright Cecilia!," his Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, 1692, is the finest such composition of the entire seventeenth century. George Frideric Handel (1685 - 1759) was an Englishman by adoption. His 1739 ode is styled "A Song for St. Cecilia's Day" and takes its text from the poet John Dryden. The Cecilian music is as grand and glorious as you might expect from the man who penned Messiah. Later on in the eighteenth century the music of Franz Joseph Haydn (1732 - 1809) became hugely popular in England and the composer paid two triumphant visits to London. Haydn composed many musical settings of the Roman Catholic Mass. His "St. Cecilia Mass" is an early work. Originally called in Latin Missa Cellensis, it was dedicated to the honor of the Blessed Virgin Mary. It was taken up for performance in Vienna at the Brotherhood of St. Cecilia, for which Haydn greatly expanded the score. We get to hear the Kyrie and Gloria sections written in 1766, augmented by two fugal passages from the Credo added in 1773. In all three Cecilian works our performers are the period instrumentalists of Les Musiciens du Louvre, Grenoble and their Grenoble chorus conducted by Mark Minkowski.

 

Sunday November 28th:Thompson, The Peaceable Kingdom, etc/Copland, Suite from The Tender Land Randall Thompsom (1899 - 1984) and Aaron Copland (1900 - 90) were two composers who defined what American music was in the twentieth century. Thompson made his mark with beautifully crafted choral works in a conservative, accessible style well-suited for performance by amateur groups. These have become classics of the repertoire, such as his famousAlleluia (1940). Thompson was much impressed with an American folk art painting The Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1833) by Edward Hicks. His a cappella choral compositions of the same name (1936) sets verses from the Old Testament book of Isaiah ("The lamb shall lie down with the lion," etc.). The Peaceable Kingdom, Alleluia, the Mass of the Holy Spirit (1956), The Last Invocation (1922), and a late work, Farewell (1974) are all intended for unaccompanied mixed voices. The voices we will hear are those of the Schola Cantorum of Oxford, conducted by James Burton. This British group recorded all of these works in the chapel of Exeter College, Oxford University in 2008 for the UK based Hyperion label.

Our Harvest Home Americana program continues with a cantata derived from Aaron Copland's operaThe Tender Land (1954). I broadcast the complete and fully orchestrated opera on Sunday, July 7, 1991 in its world premiere Virgin Classics recording. Conductor Murray Sidlin made a half-hour digest out of the most affecting scenes ofThe Tender Land in a chamber orchestrated adaptation that was sanctioned by Copland himself. TheSuite from the Tender Land was played publicly for the first time at the Aspen Music Festival in Colorado in 1996.  Sidlin’s chamber version of the entire opera premiered here in Connecticut at the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven in 1997. The 1999 Koch International Classics recording of Sidlin’s adaptation went over the air on this program on Sunday, July 3, 2005. As in that recording of the whole opera, in the 1997 Koch release of theSuite from the Tender Land Sidlin directs the Third Angle New Music Ensemble.  The Tender Land is an American folk opera set on a farm in the Middle West at harvest time. Heard as the farm girl Laurie is soprano Monica Yunus, opposite the hired hand Martin, who is tenor Robert MacNeil.

 

Sunday December 5th:Mendelssohn, Incidental music for Athalia, Magnificat/J.S. Bach, Magnificat. Everyone has heard Mendelssohn's incidental music for Shakespeare'sA Midsummer Night's Dream (1843). Mendelssohn also wrote music for theatrical productions of classical Greek dramas Antigone (1841) and Oedipus at Colonnus (1842), as well as Athalia (1845), a biblical tragedy from the pen of the seventeenth century French dramatist Racine. All these plays were rendered into German language versions at the behest the King of Prussia. Athalia premiered at Berlin precisely at this time of year, and since its Old Testament story deals with the royal line of David and prophesies the coming of Jesus the Messiah, the drama and its music are perfectly appropriate for performance at Advent. So that the musical numbers could be performed without Racine’s play, Mendelssohn asked his friend Eduard Devrient to write some narrative passages to string everything together. Athalia has received the recording it so justly deserves from the German Hänssler Classic label. A male and female narrator were employed when Athalia was recorded at the International Bach Academy of Stuttgart. The founder of the Academy, Helmut Rilling, directs his own choral group, the Gächinger Kantorei and the Symphony Orchestra of Southwest German Radio Stuttgart. There are three solo singers. Musical Heritage Society picked up the Hänssler Classic released in 2010 for distribution in the United States.

The singing of the Magnificat has been a part of the Christian liturgy from earliest times. The Latin text is taken verbatim from the Gospel according to St. Luke and consists of the Virgin Mary's response of praise to God upon the Annunciation, i.e. the Archangel Gabriel's announcement to her that she will bear the Son of God. The Magnificat is the central component of Vespers or Evening Prayer. During Advent and Christmastide the Magnificat takes on special significance. It was for festive performance of Christmas Vespers, 1723 that J.S. Bach composed his famous setting of the Magnificat. The child prodigy Felix Mendelssohn took Bach’s Magnificat as a model for his own Magnificat in D Major of 1822. It was his first large scale work for orchestra, chorus, and vocal soloists. You'll get to hear both Magnificat compositions as sung by the Yale Schola Cantorum, accompanied by the Yale Collegium Players, conducted by Simon Carrington. The Magnificats were recorded at Yale University’s Woosley Hall in New Haven. A 2009 Naxos release on a single silver disc.

 

Sunday december 12th:Nielsen, Aladdin/Menotti, Amahl and the Night Visitors. Fantasy and fairytale hold the stage at Christmastime and the theatrical pageants we remember from childhood. Carl Nielsen wrote extensive incidental music forAladdin, a Danish fairytale drama in five acts that was splendidly produced at the Royal Danish Theatre in Copenhagen in 1919. If you like Grieg's incidental music forPeer Gynt  you'll most likely enjoy NielsensAladdin, since it has the same components: dances, orchestral interludes and mood pieces, vocal solos and choruses, and spoken word melodrama. Those voiceovers with orchestral accompaniment were treated as purely instrumental numbers when Aladdin was recorded for the British Chandos label in 1992 in the Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen, in coproduction with Radio Denmark. Gennady Rozhdestvensky conducts the Danish National Symphony Orchestra and the Danish National Chamber Choir.

A staple of the Christmas operatic repertoire is Gian Carlo Menotti's  Amahl and the Night Visitors (1951). You'll hear the new Naxos recording of Menotti's beloved work with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra and members of the Nashville Symphony Chorus, George Mabry conducting. Appendixed to the opera on a single Naxos CD is a brief choral workMy Christmas (1987) to Menotti's own text, his personal reminiscences of the holiday. Again, Mabry leads the male voices of the Nashville Symphony Chorus and members of the Nashville Symphony.

 

Sunday december 19th:Hindemith, Das lange Weihnachtsmahl/Smith, Vespers. Fond memories of Christmas dinner with family are part of the holiday idyll. What if it was possible to attend a Christmas feast that encompasses ninety years of a family history? That's what the distinguished American playwright Thornton Wilder had in mind in his one-act playThe Long Christmas Dinner (1931). German composer Paul Hindemith approached Wilder about rendering his play into a suitable opera libretto. Wilder took on the challenge and gave Hindemith exactly what he wanted for his last operaDas lange Weihnachtsmahl (1961). Hindemith himself translated Wilder's libretto into German and crafted his music so that the opera could be sung in either English or Deutsch. We get the German language version in a 2005 Wergo recording with Marek Janowski conducting the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra and vocal soloists.

I've already mentioned in these notes how the holy office of Vespers and the singing of the festive Magnificat are traditionally associated with Advent and Christmastide. Kile Smith’s Vespers premiered at the latter end of the celebratory period at Epiphany in January of 2008 in Philadelphia. Composer Kile Smith (b. 1956) is deeply committed to the musical traditions of North German Lutheranism. His Vespers permits a Latin language setting of the Magnificat plus German chorales. The music draws upon the musical stylings of the sixteenth century, the century of the Reformation. What really gives this world premiere recording its pleasing tang is the sound of a renaissance wind band and the sound of other instruments of the period accompanying the choral forces of The Crossing, Philadelphia's preeminent vocal group devoted to new classical music. The wind band backing them is the world renowned Piffaro ensemble.

 

Sunday december 26th:Handel, Messiah. Arguably the greatest English language oratorio ever written, Handel'sMessiah (1741) resounds in performances around the world at Christmastime. There are also plenty of Messiah recordings to choose from in a variety of stylistic approaches to the famous music. Yet the compiler of Messiah's libretto, Charles Jennens, seems to have intended Handel’s work for performance at Easter, since the last part of it deals with Christ's resurrection and the resurrection of all Christian souls.Among so many current recordings out thereFanfare magazine's reviewer Ron Salemi, writing in the May/June, 2010 issue, rates Stephen Layton’s Messiah on the Hyperion label as a very good one. The historically informed and period instrument recordings predominate these days. Conductor Layton remembers from his youth how deeply he was inspired by Christopher Hogwood's 1980 recording for Decca/L’Olseau Lyre of the definitive period instrument interpretation ofMessiah in the Foundling Hospital version. For the 2009 Hyperion release Layton directs a modern instrument chamber orchestra, the Britten Sinforia, who are thoroughly informed in baroque playing practice. Over the past fifteen plus years Stephen Layton and the choral group he founded, Polyphony, have given annualMessiah concerts at St. John's, Smith Square in central London. The Hyperion recording captures their 2008 performance. Layton gives us a slightly modified take on Handel’s 1750 score, the so-called Foundling HospitalMessiah, which we have come to assume represents Handel's final thoughts about this music.

All but three of the featured recordings in this two month period of programming come out of our WWUH classical music record library, the three exceptions being Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Invisible City of Kitezh,” Mendelssohn'sAthalia, and Copland’s Tender Land cantata. Those recordings come from my own collection of opera on disc. Thanks once again to Vickie Hadge of Virtually Done by Vickie for her assistance in preparing these notes for the online publication of the WWUH Program Guide. Looking back on my calendar year 2010 I must also thank my fellow classics deejays Larry Bilanksy and Will Mackey for substituting for me.