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November 10, 2011

New Opera Singers Got Their Chance

Young singers - Anna Nosova
Young singers - Anna Nosova

Young student opera singers usually get to perform at various exams or concerts within the walls of a Music Academy or Conservatory. The audience at these concerts tends to be composed of picky and well versed professors and fellow students who, as colleagues, tend to be even more austere.

But sometimes, a once-in-a-life-time opportunity comes along and then the question becomes: can you do it?

An insiduous virus mowed down two experienced sopranos concurrently. They were to sing on November 10, 2011 on the Lviv Philharmonia stage in a Mozart-Gala concert.

While trying to find a solution to this unforseen calamity, I decided to listen to several new opera singers from the Lviv Music Academy. To my great delight, everything turned out for the best!

The audience always enjoys listening to the Queen of the Night, or Papageno and Papagena from the opera The Magic Flute. But this time, everyone was particularly moved and convinced by Anna Nosova and her performance as the romantically na?ve Zerlina in the duet with Don Gionvanni and as Despina in Cosi fan tutte.

I suspect that this unplanned meeting on the professional stage won’t be our last.

October 27, 2011

Young Female Opera Singers – Karen Vermeiren

Young Female Opera Singers – Karen Vermeiren
Young Female Opera Singers – Karen Vermeiren

The performance by the young female opera singer from Belgium, Karen Vermeiren, was an exquisite gift for Lviv opera fans.

At the request of the organisors, I coordinated the concert program with Karen. It was an incredibly varied program and I admit to being somewhat concerned about its potential outcome. But, a day before the concert, during the first rehearsal with the young singer, my fears were laid to rest.

In all likelihood, as she develops her opera career, this young talented female singer will develop a partiality for certain operatic roles more than for others. On the other hand, both her vocal capabilities and her stage charisma are already showing a wide range of possibilities. She would make an excellent Countess Rosina in The Marriage of Figaro by W.A. Mozart. At the same time, this young female singer persuades with her Tosca, as well as, Cio-Cio San. Her sensitive and passionate rendition of Rusalka from the opera Rusalka by A.Dvorak won the audience over.

At the end of the evening, as an encore, the young opera singer performed a most magical of Ukrainian folk songs “On a moonlit night” (“Misyats na nebi”).

As Karen sang and I conducted, a thought flashed through my mind: “In the past, many years ago, on a quiet evening somewhere in the Zaporizhian region of Ukraine, your grandmother or your great-grandmother most probably sang this song many times”. Maybe, precisely because of this, this evening the performance was moving, skillful and with ?lan vital. The audience responded to this highlight in kind.

October 1, 2011

Modern Classical Music and The Audience – Classical MusicNotes

Click to enjoy Valse Boston by Giya Kancheli. Performed by Marianna Humetska and the Lviv Virtuosos on October 1, 2011 at the Lviv Philharmonia, Ukraine. Conducted by Myron Yusypovych.

The concert of modern classical music on October 1, 2011, at the Lviv Philharmonia with the Lviv Virtuosos orchestra, included the works: Elegy in Memory of Liudkevych* by Yevhen Stankovych, Tan Hopak by Yuriy Laniuk and 2 compositions by Giya Kancheli – Valse-Boston and Capote.

In preparing the program of modern classical music composed at the end of the 20th beginning of the 21st centuries for performance at the 17th International Festival of Contemporary Music Contrasts, I felt inclined to believe that this concert would meet with the approval of the professional music critics and specialists, as well as, the average concert audiences, who are more used to Mozart, Schubert and Tchaikovsky. For me, this was a key priority.

In the end, I was satisfied with the concert results. The soloists – Mariana Humetska (piano Valse Boston), Roman Yusypey (accordion Capote), Oxana Rapita (piano Tan-Hopak) and all the members of the orchestra, who began the concert with a small but brilliant miniature by Y.Stankovych, performed well. They showed a deep and profound understanding of these outwardly not very effective, but incredibly deep and delicious works.

What joy it is to be in a world, where, even though we constantly need to make compromises, there are, nevertheless, opportunities, from time to time, to touch creations that are real and true.

In life, we are surounded by that which is true and by that which is false. This relates to many aspects of people’s lives, but, in this particular situation, I am referring to music, creativity and the ensuing impact of such artistic activity.

The real, carrying a harmonic form, as well as a profoundly clear meaning, is born into this world easily and naturally. The listener can appreciate it spontaneously and with ease. Alternatively, music can be born as a result of anguish. But the agony is of the Soul, not the Mind. The “angst”, experienced by the listener contemplating such a result, will be an honest suffering, with experiences that bring about a particular gratification and cleansing.

On the other hand, those others, the fakes, are created through a process of intellectual pain without engaging the inner Soul. The product is a huge manipulated falsehood. It is the outgrowth of a difficult process of invention, combination and trite manipulation of something, where there is nothing. The outcome serves only to satisfy the personal ambitions of the individual, who aspires to be called an artist. Inevitably, this creation causes suffering for the listener and a subconscious protest on the part of the musicians, who must carry out their professional responsibility and perform the work.

Blessed hindsight is 20/20 and in time, everything becomes evident. The real and the false are distinguished.

The audience, that has left the concert hall after a performance, either wants to come again or refuses to attend another concert. For the uninitiated, it is intuitively obvious whether the musical creation they have experienced is manipulation or something truly inspired. And, attempts by professional critics to persuade them otherwise have no impact on the next time. The concert hall will either be full or empty.

I am convinced, that next time the audience that attended our concert on October 1, 2011, will not be scared away by new composer names on concert announcements. This, precisely because, on this occasion, they were not cheated. They had the opportunity to become a part of something real and true that is part of modern classical music.

July 18, 2011

Soviet Opera MusicNotes

Listen to the Introduction to Act 1 of the opera The Stolen Happiness (Ukradene Schastia) by Julij Mejtus. Performed by the K&K Philharmoniker and K&K Opernchor. This live recording was made at the Konzerthaus, Berlin, Germany. Conducted by Myron Yusypovych.

During the USSR period, a great number of Soviet operas, symphonies, oratorio and cantatas were written. These musical works were written by composers in all the major centers across the vast expanses of the Soviet Union. But, after the disintegration of the Soviet Union, only a relative few of these musical compositions have continued to be performed.

Why have they been shelved? Probably because these Soviet operas and other musical works were written under strict ideological prescriptions, in order to fulfill the requirements of a political system. For, to produce Soviet music, a composer had to very cleverly portray false values. It would seem that revolutionary pathos, power, grandiosity and ideologically motivated plots, have lost out to works based on true and tried universal themes.

Actually, this is not really that suprising. Interestingly, it is precisely in those instances, where the musical ideas do not center around the heroics of building a Soviet paradise but simply deal with, for example, human love, it is as if, the composer is redeemed, becomes true to himself and, only then, does his real talent surface and become apparent. This tendency is evident in the titans of Soviet music, for example Shostakovich, Prokofiev, Lyatoshynsky, Khachaturia, as well as, in the lesser known names of their contemporaries.

Since I’m writing about Soviet opera and Soviet music in general, I would like to provide an example from my personal experience.

In 1986, I interned at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad as a young conductor. At that time, I had the opportunity to visit the Central Music Archives of the USSR Composers’ Union in Moscow. These were huge facilities filled with multiple stacks reaching 4 to 5 metres in height. All of the stacks were piled with scores and sheet music written by Soviet composers during the Soviet period.

By ordinance, all of these composers had to be members of the USSR Composer’s Union. Interestingly, neither then nor afterward did I, or any of my fellow conductors, ever hear of these composers. At the same time, for every one of these scores, every one of these Soviet composers had received a rather large honorarium from the State.

I don’t remember all the details, but I clearly recall that the highest rate was paid out for a Soviet opera. The honorarium was somewhere in the range of 10,000 – 12,000 rubles. It was even said, that a Soviet opera was the equivalent of a luxury Soviet car – GAZ-24 Volga. Submitting a completed oratorio fetched 8,000-10,000 rubles. And so it went down the list. The smallest payment, somewhere in the 800-1,000 ruble range, was for chamber music and music for children. Most composers were of the opinion that there was no point in composing such music.

For comparison purposes, at that time, a teacher’s, engineer’s, doctor’s salary was 120-150 rubles per month (1,440 – 1,680 per year).

That the Soviet State chose to pay out the highest amounts for an opera is understandable. A Soviet opera could embody the swing and magnitude of events required for the creation of the Soviet ideal. It was precisely for these types of Soviet operas that it’s composer could receive a State award of merit or valour. I remember, that at that time there were at least 8 operas by Uzbek and Tadzik composers about the heroic antics of communal farm peasants working the cotton fields.

During the Soviet period, the State financed all cultural events and institutions. Every year, the budget of the USSR would include a specific amount dedicated to the Composers’ Union for salaries and various planned events. This meant that, in addition to the honoraria payed out to composers for music written during any particular year, each composer received a monthly salary. Certainly, all composers had to be members of the Composers’ Union. Consequently, all composers had to be members of the Communist Party.

July 6, 2011

The Intermezzo in Puccini Operas – Opera MusicNotes

Listen to the Intermezzo from Act 3 and Humming Chorus from Act 2 of G. Puccini’s Opera Madame Butterfly performed by the K&K Philharmoniker and K&K Opernchor. This live recording was made in April, 2007 at the Berliner Philharmonie, Germany. Conducted by Myron Yusypovych (Myron Jussipowitsch).

I remember a time, when at the beginning of my conducting career, I would catch myself thinking: “How unfortunate that in Puccini’s operas the orchestral Intermezzo are so short and incomplete in the traditional way, albeit in tune with the opera’s overall dramatic development.” In comparison, Mascagni and Leoncavallo, who composed in approximately the same style as Puccini, this ingenious orchestral fragment has a completed sound. As a result, their musical framents became popular hits and obligatory parts of any opera concert.

However, when it comes to operas by Puccini, the situation is somewhat different. The “symphonic picture” at the beginning of Act 3 in Tosca by G. Puccini expresses the quintessence of the opera. The tolling of the bells in nightime Rome is absolute genius. It is difficult to find something more inspiring, fine and moving. This is not simply music – this is poetry.

According to Puccini’s plan, the musical orchestral episode – intermezzo, which introduces Scene 2, Act 2 of the opera Madama Butterfly, doesn’t have an ending. This brilliant episode in Puccini’s score, has bothered and intrigued me for many years. It even inspired me to write several lines of poetry that became part of my “Reflections on the Opera”.

In time, an opportunity came up and I was motivated, once again, to reasses how to include this musical fragment in a concert. Granted, my manipulations of G.Puccini’s opera score were minimal. In all honesty, I didn’t change a single note. But then, the audience reactions in such concert halls as Berliner Philharmonie, Konzerthaus Dormund, Gewandhaus Leipzig… reaffirmed that my “creation” had the right to a life of it’s own.

I wonder what Puccini would have thought of my liberties. Perhaps, some day I’ll know.

May 30, 2011

Opera Tenors – Opera MusicNotes

Opera Tenors Concert
Opera Tenors Concert

In the opera world, opera tenors hold an esteemed position. In all probability, it was always so. Or, perhaps, the opera tenor replaced the famous opera castrati within the opera prestige hierarchy. In contemporary productions, many would agree that the opera tenor (or, at least those tenors, who truly sparkle) are «the icing on the cake» in any opera performance.

Since The Three Tenors in Concert project propelled the opera tenor to international fame, the popularity of opera tenors has skyrocketed around the world. Suddenly, people who had never previously listened to opera music, decided they like it and wanted to attend a performance. Today, opera tenors are contributing to the success of a number of musical business ventures.

I have had the opportunity to entertain an audience wanting to listen and see the tenor perform in concert. The success of such shows was practically guaranteed not just because of the tenors' sparkle on stage, which in all honesty often had a number of technical problems. These concerts are destined for success as far as the audience is concerned, although the music critics are often not as enthusiastic.

The secret, to my mind, is quite simple – of the 3 tenors or 10 tenors, or whatever number of tenors appear on stage, at least one or two have to have this unique tenor sparkle. This is half the battle. The other half, is the famous tenor repertoire consistently performed at such concerts and highly anticipated by the audience.

In my experience, this phenomenon is the same everywhere – Canada, Poland, Germany and Ukraine.

Whether or not a star tenor can be engaged for such a concert is usually dependent on the financial resources of the event organizors. Usually, they are interested in the show as a whole. Albeit, sometimes real connoisseurs have insisted that the Romance by Nemorino («Una furtiva lagrima») be included in the first half and the battle cry by Manrico («Di quella pira») in C major in the second half. As became apparent, rarely could any of them distinguish the B-flat major, in which it was played and sung, from the C major, which they had wanted. But, then, is that really the point?

Yes, the knowledgeable and experienced musician and musical critic can distinguish between a high B or C. But, if we want to engage an ever larger audience, then we need to focus on beautiful timber, musical clarity, candor and charisma.

On the other hand, as I have consistently insisted, this can be said about all opera and classical music – not just about opera tenors.

April 21, 2011

A Bit About Classical Music Composers – Classical MusicNotes

While reviewing some of my video clips from past concerts, I stumbled onto a performance recording of the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila and the orchestral suite Waltz Fantasy by Mikhail Glinka.

Once again, as numerous times in the past, the thought came to me: How unaffected is Glinka’s genius and yet how clear and profound. He is able to portray so much using a modest and traditional orchestra!

While contemplating such thoughts, I recalled one well known quote by the composer of Ruslan and Ludmila in reference to Joseph Haydn’s music “And I didn’t chop off this hand, which has taken upon itself to write music after such great creations!”

How emotional and yet, how modest!

And so my thoughts turned to this great Austrian and the jubilee celebrations that took place in 2009. For me, it is logical, timely and appropriate that this celebration coincided with a «world crisis».

At a time, when the planet is totally stressed and engulfed in feelings of complete «crisis» pessimism, what we really need is a slightly bigger portion of what is proposed by this exuberant wiseman.

The music video above is an excerpt from the Overture to the opera Ruslan and Ludmila by Mikhail Glinka. Performed by the K&K Philharmoniker at the Berliner Philharmonie. Conducted by Myron Yusypovych.

After all, «feeding» the resident music lover, exhausted by today's reality a steady diet of works like D. Shostakovich's Symphony No.8 is, to my mind, not quite logical and can be construed to border on the sadistic.

Today when this world lacks harmony, a timely dose of musical therapy as proposed by the genius of J. Haydn and his brilliant and harmonius tradition of a wise and «ancient merry-maker» is appropriate.

After all, there will come a time when everything will be as it should be.

Perhaps, M. Glinka understood this in the by-gone 50s of the 19th century. And, perhaps, that is why M. Glinka's Ruslan and Ludmila or his Capriccio brillante on the Jota Aragones (Spanish Overture No.1) as well as J. Haydn's quartets and symphonies are destined to be successful – always and everywhere.

April 11, 2011

Some Thoughts on Young Conductor Training – Classical MusicNotes

Myron Yusypovych with Conductor in Training Roland Marchuk
Myron Yusypovych with Conductor in Training Roland Marchuk

Turning to the topic of young conductors, I would like to say a bit about their education, as well as, the profession of conducting as a whole.

The profession of conductor, as compared to that of instrumentalist or singer, is a relatively new phenomenon. About 200 years ago, no one would have dreamed of standing in front of the musicians holding a baton over their heads. With time, things changed and evolved. Today, we take it for granted that a conductor leads the musicians.

On the other hand, it would be timely to mention that in the 1920s, at the dawn of the socialist era in Russia, there was an attempt to eliminate the position of conductor. At the time, the conductor was perceived to be a «dictator» and a vestige of the bourgeois world. Needless to say, the experiment culminated in complete fiasco. The orchestra members rebelled and the conductor was returned to the podium.

Today, if we examine current realities, we see that of all the musical professions, the profession of conductor can be envisaged as mastery of the highest skills of the craft of performance both in technique and spirit, as well as, the most opportunity for complete and total quackery.

Nikolai A. Rimsky-Korsakov, a famous composer and musician who himself conducted on numerous occasions stated – «Conducting is a dark deed, indeed!» Igor Stravinsky, another composer who conducted, was even more cutting in his assessment of this profession.

We can agree or disagree with all of this. We can have different opinions on whether or not the conductor has the right to a subjective interpretation of various musical scores.

And yet, after all the discussion is over, it comes down to one thing. Is this person standing on the conductor's podium an egotistical narcissus, who doesn't hear or see anything beyond the written notes and, for all intents and purposes, is a parasite of the music? Or, is this person an intelligent mind, integrally connected, and in full harmony with that organism we call an orchestra, during the 14 minutes of a concerto grosso, 45 minutes of a symphony or 2-3 hours of an opera?

To my mind, we can compare the education and training of young conductors, as well as the profession of the conductor as a whole, to an iceberg. Knowing how to «wave the arms», the specific technique of conducting, is only the surface part. Real conducting is hidden beneath the surface.

Unfortunately, it is standard practice in some educational institutions to spend 5-7(!?!) years focusing on the surface skills – perfecting the technique of how to «wave the arms». Learning this skill involves spending 80% of learning time «waving the arms» to a piano and an imaginary Berliner Philharmoniker, and 20% in front of an orchestra put together for conductor practice. This is problematic! Indeed, in this sense, I would complete concur with Arturo Toscanini, who saw no point in learning or teaching the craft of conducting.

To return to our iceberg. Such learning experiences result in clumps of white floating ice, chips off the block. The surface appears to be fashionably «charismatic». But, these young conductors embark on their voyage not having any real underlying strength. The audience reacts to the superficial, intuitively feeling that something is missing. Musicians at all levels, including those in the far-lying, smaller and community orchestras – understand this instantly and precisely.

A genuine conductor is, without fail, a «profound» musician with a deep and complete knowledge of music. In turn, he or she is seldom, if ever, an egotistical narcissus, who focuses on the surface qualities.

And yet, the ice chips keep floating.

To repeat Nikolai's words, «Conducting is a dark deed, indeed!»

March 29, 2011

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky – a Russian Musical Phenomenon? – Classical MusicNotes

Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky would have been 170 years old on May 7, 2010.

Curiously, this purely Russian form of addressing someone by their name, patronymic and surname is applied to this particular composer mostly in the West. Alexander Borodin, Sergei Rachmaninoff or Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov are known by their names and surnames. And yet, there is an insistence on using Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Obviously, this tendency comes from a desire to emphasize the Russian tradition of addressing someone.

At the same time, in certain contemporary Russian publications (e.g. Nasha istorija: 100 velikikh imen – Our History: 100 Famous Names, No.4, 2010, De Agostin Publishers, Moscow), dedicated to the 170th anniversary of Petro Ilyich Tchaikovsky, this clearly Russian tradition is ignored.

Interestingly, it is this ommission that drew my attention.

And so, I, once again, throught about the Ukrainian roots of this musical genius and composer.

It is a known fact that Petro Tchaikovsky's great-grandfater was a kozak (cossack) within the Ukrainian Kozak elite and carried the surname of Tchaika (meaning: seagull). Interestingly, this heritage is not disputed by the Russians, for whom Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky has become a prominent cultural export.

Although, I am interested in the specific details of the composer's ethnicity, I am more interested in understanding the phenomenon of P.Tchaikovsky and his relationship with the Russian music tradition. After all, Tchaikovsky's music is different from the music of other Russian composers. So, what, if any, is the relationship?

The music video above is the Finale of Symphony #4 by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky. Performed by the Lviv State Philharmonic Orchestra. Conducted by Myron Yusypovych.

For many Russian composers, including but not limited to «The Five» (a group of Russian composers, founded in the early 1860s in St.Petersburg, also known as «The Mighty Handful» or «The Mighty Coterie») oriental motifs, ethnic colours, great ethos, opera in the so-called «national drama» style are the driving force. With their brightly developed far-eastern colours and tastes, «The Five» (Mily Balakirev, Alexander Borodin, Cesar Ciu, Modest Mussorgsky, Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov) are truly Russian in their essence and nature as composers.

To my mind, this style of composing music is a forerunner to the later style of «socialist realism» and is typically Russian. The composers tend toward music influenced by ideology and patriotism. Then, as well as later, such music became an instrument to influence and control the wider population.

On the other hand, this is something very far removed from the mentality and aesthetics of Peter Tchaikovsky. In this light, the attacks by the Russian patriot and musicologist, Vladimir Vasiliev Stasov, on Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky are absolutely predictable. They, P.Tchaikovsky on the one hand and V.V.Stasov and «The Five» Russian composers on the other hand, differ in both philosophy and aesthetics.

Ethereal, prone to being hurt and far removed from the pathos of national accomplishments and conflicts,Tchaikovsky is unique. He is first and foremost an artist and thinker.

Every empire, in order to flourish must actively engage the resources made available to it within its colonies. Some geniuses and talented individuals stubbornly maintain their unique national identity, in this case a non-Russian identity, and are relegated to obscurity. Others are incorporated by the centralized authorities and became a part of the empire's history and culture.

Obviously, the uprooting and subsequent adjustments made by such individuals have an impact on them and their subsequent personal development.

In the case of Tchaikovsky, the Ukrainian seed was transported onto Russian soil and compelled to grow there. The heavy, cold St.Petersburg sky left its imprint on this lyrical, passionate heart, which later overflowed into his many works and particularly the heavy B-minor of his Symphony No.6 «Pathetique».

The composer lived his life «with morta», attempting to flee and yet unable to do so. Does this make him Russian?

By all accounts, P.Tchaikovsky is a European composer. Personally, I am convinced that for the most part, this is due to his Ukrainian roots.

March 17, 2011

Have We No National Pride? – Opera MusicNotes

National Pride?
National Pride?

Who and where can best perform the opera Norma by Vincenzo Bellini?

Even taking into account contemporary processes of cultural inclusion, integration and globalisation, performing the works of Italian composers remains a priority for Italian opera houses and performers, who focus on the traditions of bel canto by Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini.

In a repertoire theatre, where a different production is performed every night, it is difficult, nay impossible,, for the same choir to sing Borys Godunov by M.Mussorgsky, Knjaz Igor by A. Borodin and Norma by V.Bellini, for the same male opera singer to sing the tenor parts of The Pretender (Borys Godunov), Vladimir Igorevich (Kniaz Igor) and Polione (Norma) on subsequent nights.

On the other hand, if you really put your mind to it, you can sing anything, anytime. But, what's the point?

Granted, perfoming Bellini operas is not the exclusive right of Milan. Neither are any of the other national composers the sole prerogative of their national state. Sydney, Toronto, Moscow and, of course, Kyiv have an obligation to their audiences to provide a variety. But, is it really necessary to grant the highest Ukrainian state award in the field of culture, the National Taras Shevchenko Award for a production of Bellini's opera Norma?

It's almost, as if, we will have to wait until Riccardo Muti brushes up on his Ukrainian and prepares a production of The Stolen Happiness (Ukradene schastya) by Julij Mejtus based on the literary work of Ivan Franko, or The Forest Song (Lisova Pisnia) by Vitaliy Kyreiko based on the literary work of Lesia Ukrajinka or Bohdan Khmelnytsky by Kostiantyn Dankevych that we will ultimately understand that our opera composers are worthy of the highest awards.

If the trend of awarding national honours in Kyiv to the beautiful Italian operas of Bellini and promoting ouselves in international tours with Russian classics like Borys Godunov, Khovanshchyna and Kniaz Igor continues, then we have a long wait before we even acknowledge our own.