Entries tagged with “Baroque”.


William Kentridge mania has swept the Seattle area art blogs that I follow. For good reason for the most part as at this point in time he has a show at the Henry Art Gallery, recent prints at Greg Kucera Gallery, a performance at UW and first and foremost a staging of his production of Montiverdi’s Return of Ulysses with Pacific Operaworks. Getting caught up in this mania I checked to see if tickets were available on Saturday and they were so I rather impulse bought one and headed out to the show.

Return of Ulysses Staging

The show was at the historic Moore Theater which really was the perfect venue for this sort of thing. Built in 1907 this theater has the old rococo charm of its classic theater and vaudeville roots which seemed to blend seamlessly with the stage setting. The stage was basically setup in three layers in a semi-circle with a stage on the bottom, the musicians on the middle level and the third level a balcony in front of a screen upon which Kentridge’s animations and drawings were projected. The visual information that was available to the audience was overwhelming. The characters in the opera were represented by puppets which were fantastic creations of the Handspring Puppet Company whose puppeteer was right there on stage with their puppet. Additionally a each character had the singer who usually flanked the puppet on the other side and usually manipulated one of the puppets arms.  So each character (except for the gods who were represented solely by a singer) had three separate parts to it and at times the stage could be pretty crowded with them all.

Ever present was the musicians, who for this early music aficionado are fascinating to watch.  Arrayed in the semi-circle illustrated above from left to right they were: baroque harp, arch lute, chitarone/baroque guitar, viola, baroque violin, viola de gamba and baroque ‘cello/lirone. The Montiverdi score is really entrancing, quite a bit of it was interplay between the harp and lute often with the ‘cello or viola de gamba providing an almost drone like continuo.  All of the performers are part of Seattle’s very engaged early music scene and thus the size of the ensemble, the tunings, the performance techniques and the instruments were all appropriate to the music.  Music from this period does not suffer from the same type of excesses that mark opera from the romantic periods especially in vocal techniques. The singing is much more akin to what you’d find in say a Bach Cantata or polyphonic chant. The size of the orchestra doesn’t allow for the huge overtures and bombast of this period either, the music is much more delicate and as it is all strings of a particular character.  There really is a balance between the singers, who do not engage in the vocal flights of fancy one typically associates with opera and the instrumentalists who do not have over endowed sections to simplify and over emphasize their sounds. I really loved the music for this, the layers of plucked tones from the lute(s) and harp, the drones from the ‘cello and viola de gamba and the rare melodic interventions of the violin and viola.  This served well to remind me that the Montiverdi selection in my CD files is a bit thin. The music direction from Stephen Stubbs was impeccable and I’m inspired to seek out some of his early music recordings.  Pacific Operworks who performed the opera is a new company started by Stubbs and in conjunction with the Seattle Academy of Baroque Opera focuses on chamber operas and related historical performances. Based on this, their inagurale production, they are clearly a welcome addition to the city.

The next layer was the projected animations and drawings from William Kentridge.  These served a number of purposes from backdrop and stage setting, to commentary.  In some instances it would be a scrolling landscape, road or hallway and the puppets would perform in front of it giving a sense of movement and represent well the travel that was involved.  Most interesting though was the use of the animation as an illustration of the abstract concepts that the opera was engaging.  The play begins with Ulysses on his deathbed surrounded by representations of Time, Fortune and Love. Projected during this was images of surgery, abstract drawings that could evoke such things as time, thought, feelings of frailty and of course abstractions that their just wasn’t sufficient time to unravel. At other times metaphors from the characters would be illustrated such as flowering plants, vines and growing trees as Penelope’s three suitors ply her with these analogies in an attempt to persuade her to turn her affections from the long absent Ulysses to one of them.  Certain images would repeat sometimes permuted other times directly to underscore recurrent themes and ideas.  Over the hour and forty minutes or so of the opera I’d say there was nearly an hours worth of original material, most of it black and white animated images (as opposed to layered cell animation). I was really taken by a lot of this animation and am now very curious to see more of Kentridge’s art in this style.

Finally there was the actual story of the opera which as inmost modern opera productions was available to use via super-scripting – a small monitor above the stage where the lyrics would be presented in English in real time. The story of course is familiar to anyone who has read Homer – Ulysses returning from the Trojan wars was waylaid by the gods and wandered for many years. During this time his wife Penelope is besieged by suitors who wish to win her hand and gain Ulysses kingdom. Ulysses finally making it back to Greece  learns of this situation and added by Athena  appears in his court in the disguise of an old man in order to assess the situation. Finding Penelope has remained true to him he slays the suitors, reveals his identity and reunites with his wife. A multi-layered story with ideas rooted in man’s mortality, the nature of fate, faithfulness, the nature of power and so on.

All in all between reading the text, watching the stagecraft, keeping an eye on the animation and watching the musicians and listening to the music I can’t think of the last time I have been so completely engaged in a performance. Even the narrow and uncomfortable Moore theater seats were barely able to arise to my attention so enveloped as I was in this abundance of stimuli.  This is definitely one of the best and most engaging things I have seen in a long time and while it was rather expensive it was well worth it. This is a rare event and they are only doing five performances here before moving the staging to San Francisco. For any of my Seattle area readers I highly advise catching one of this weekend’s performances.

On Friday December 12th I saw Jaap ter Linden perform Johann Sebastian Bach’s Suites for Unaccompanied ‘Cello at Town Hall here in Seattle. Bach’s ‘cello suites are truly one of the greatest pieces of music and I was quite excited to see these performed.  Linden is a historical music specialist and he performs these pieces on baroque instruments. For me I find baroque pieces to be much more present and filled with life when they are played on period instruments using the original tunings and using some of the original performance techniques. In the baroque era there wasn’t quite as strong a division between composition and improvisation as there would come to be and it was quite common for performers to improvise their own flourishes, ornamentation and bridging sections.  Historically Informed Performances (HIP) basically sound more interesting and alive to me and often transform old war horses into lively things filled with details you never realized. For me the HIP movement of the last couple of decades has been the most exciting thing to happen in the performance of the classical repertoire.

The baroque ‘cello has a much richer, fuller sound then the modern ‘cello especially with the added mellowness of gut strings.  In this performance Linden sat alone on the stage, unamplified with just his ‘cellos and a music stand. I was lucky enough to be sitting in the second row in the first wing just off center. This was a perfect viewing angle, not blocked by music stand and able to hear the unamplified instrument with clarity and ideal volume.  I did overhear some people after the concert complaining of not being able to hear too much in the rear of the hall, which considering how nice the Town Hall acoustics are was a bit surprising. I’ve sat in the back for several ensembles without any issues, but perhaps the solo instrument just wasn’t enough (or perhaps the patrons were a bit hard of hearing).  Anyway I’ve never heard such an incredible tone, so rich resonant and lingering.

Bach’s suites for unaccompanied ‘cello languished in obscurity until Pablo Casals brought them back into light. He discovered the pieces as a young student of 13 and studied them for and later preformed them for years. Not until he was in his later 40s did he consent to record them and his 1939 recordings of the six suites brought them back into promance. Now they are a piece that every ‘cellist will play and recordings abound.  I’ve heard several of these but prior to this show I only owned Casals original recording. While the 30s was well before the HIP movement his passon and his experience with them made for a truly powerful and moving performance.  Nearly all recordings, even the HIP ones I’ve heard have followed in Casals footsteps and they really are essential for lovers of this music.  Being a solo piece and one that’s fairly explicitly written out (i.e. less room for some of the typical baroque improvisation)  I would say the only thing lacking in Casals recording is the instrumentation. The baroque ‘cello is so much richer and resonant and that aspect changes how you interpret music. There always is an issue with tempo in baroque music, often it was not specified or used terminology that has changed meaning over the centuries.  But the instrument should always be a guide and when you play these on the baroque ‘cello the increased resonance forces you to slow down a bit so that the sound doesn’t become muddy.

I’d had the pleasure of seeing a local ‘cellist perform Suite no V last as part of the Gallery Concerts series but this was the first time I’ve seen some of the others performed. Linden performed suite no’s I, V and VI and part of III as an encore. While I love all six of the suites this subset (along with all of III) are probably my favorites so this was an ideal subset for me.  I would have loved to have seen all six performed but that would make for quite a bit of playing for one person on one night. Linden was having a bit of trouble with his gut strings holding tuning as well, often doing quite adjustments between the movements.  Gut is particularly susceptible to changes in the weather especially in humidity and we were in the midst of heavy rain that day after several dry days. In other words optimally poor conditions for traveling with a gut strung instrument. This piece survives that fairly well as it is purely melody driven and a musician of Linden’s caliber can compensate on the fly for strings that are slipping a bit out of tune. It all sounded wonderful to me and the quick retunings were never a distraction.

The ‘cello suites are one of the pieces by Bach in which the original manuscript hasn’t been found. The existing manuscripts are inconclusive in such matters as articulation and slurs (bowing instructions) so every performer has determine for themselves how they are going to tackle this issue. This again is where HIP shines – HIP is really a relationship between music and performer and by researching the existing sources and the practice of the time you can approach this in a way that brings out the best in the music.  Linden outlined his strategy for this in the program notes (which are well worth reading for those interested) and his research and practice clearly was thorough and essential to how fantastic his performance was. I bought the CDs of his most recent recording of these pieces and it is a fantastic companion to the essential Casals recordings.  Recommended.


Suite No. 1 in G major, BWV 1007
from the
Anna Magdalena Bach mss