thoughts on classical open-air performances

As the wet fall takes over and the warmth and sunny summer leave us, I ponder this day on the many open-air festivals now over and on the theater season ahead. I decide to take the pen again, or should I say the computer keyboard, to write my thoughts in this post and to discuss a question which has followed me for a while: How important is the quality of an artist and of the music in big open-air classical events?

The 3 Tenors

I remember watching, as a child, the 3 tenors concert with big open eyes. The three tenors: Luciano Pavarotti, Placido Domingo, and Jose Carreras, made history that evening. They sang opera arias, some of these becoming big popular hits among non opera-goers after this event. The setting was very much that of big pop shows. We, my siblings and parents, sat in front of our little TV and watched this novelty with big expectations.

Coming from a very musical family, the music wasn’t new, but the event was. Classical music as a “pop” concert? This was a first for me. Yet, what made it so unique was not only that this was a totally new way of presenting classical music but also that these tenors kept their professional standards high, keeping true to themselves and their quality. These were 3 different voices singing opera, in the same register, at the highest possible level for a wide audience. And it worked! I can’t help thinking now, how fortunate it was that they were already well known, top of their league, serious opera singers having made their reputation before this event.

Opera in the big open

A little while back, I was at a big open-air opera event. This time visiting a colleague involved in a massive opera production. I couldn’t help thinking, whilst there, how small and secondary the performers became. The level of singing was good, the orchestra too, yet the actual magic of a voice connecting to one was virtually impossible. The music just became a backdrop to the lights, effects, show.

When on stage at such events, we singers become very reliable on the sound engineer. It is a weird situation, as the acoustic becomes a “machine-made” thing.  A smaller voice will be easier to play with, a bigger will become more challenging for the engineer. Yet, the magic of opera is when a voice, a sound, a timbre,  just 2 small vocal cords, sail without any extra help over an orchestra, however big it may be, in a seemingly effortless way, expressing emotions through the music and text with the help of dynamics, technique and years of non stop working on one’s sound. That magic didn’t come through here, and this wasn’t for a lack of good musicians.

John Williams and Anne-Sophie Mutter

Recently, I watched another open-air concert on television. This time with a world-renowned classical violinist: Anne-Sophie Mutter. It was a cross-over concert, her first open-air concert, playing film music written and adapted for her by John Williams. Big lights, different outfits, themed backdrop, full moon, a few special effects here and there, all this was part of the show.

What stroke me most, though, was the music John Williams had written for her based on his film music. These are challenging compositions, in places quite modern too. I was surprised to see and hear how seriously John Williams took Anne-Sophie Mutter as an artist. This wasn’t about making an event with light easy music for a huge audience with a famous violinist. Nor was it about not over challenging an open-air public who might not be thought to be up to it. This was about Anne-Sophie Mutter presenting a great composer and playing his music to the best possible level, and about John Williams having the liberty and taking the opportunity to write a score technically and musically challenging for a top artist. That really got me thinking…

Conclusion

One could discuss further whether open-air classical performances are good for this industry or not, at least on an artistic level. For me, I sometimes feel that open-air performances become a superficial act and less about the direct connection of an artist through his/her interpretation with the audience. It should be about a sound not being just a note, a rhythm not just a time span, and virtuoso playing not just quick-playing… Maybe the many other factors involved: sound engineers, big screens, effects, weather, lights, and so on, make it difficult for classical music to just be the deep, challenging and intimate art form and experience I feel it really is. What do you think?

 

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How necessary is Art? My thoughts after a week in Madrid

Having just come back from a successful and inspiring week in Madrid I can’t help thinking about what I experienced there. And by doing so, I am faced with a wonderful maybe unanswerable question: why is art so powerful? And furthermore: is it, that by touching an inner nerve art reminds us of what really matters? It isn’t that I don’t know how strong an artist can be, but perhaps amidst all the activities and impulses one is confronted with daily, one tends to forget just how important art’s impulses on us are…

Unexpected exhibition

Refuel Meal, 1996, Tetsuya Ishida, acryl on board

On my first day in Madrid, I experienced such a moment. Purely coincidently, I happened to walk through the Retiro Park and discovered the Reina Sofia‘s external exhibition space, the Palacio de Velázquez. After admiring the building and taking a few photos, I walked in, not knowing what to expect. A most fascinating exhibition of, an unknown to me, Japanese artist was being shown: “Tetsuya Ishida, Self-Portrait of Other“.

Not expecting anything, I observed the inside of the building first.  It is a beautiful, very bright and open space… perfect for exhibitions. Then, I started looking at the paintings. Very quickly, I felt disturbed by them. Who is this artist? Why do I get the feeling that the men being portrayed are machine-like human beings? Always the same person, sometimes alone sometimes as a series… More and more I started to reflect and understand that this is what our society is becoming. Men turning into producing machines, men being lost, men in search of their identity… Where has life gone? Questions upon questions springing to my mind…

Hothouse, 2003, Tetsuya Ishida, acryl and oil on canvas

Some paintings were so disturbing I first had to walk away to come back to them later. This artist touched a chord in me, moved something in me so that when walking out in the bright sunshine I was a little dazzled and first had to sit on a bench in the shade before moving on.

Zarzuela magic

A few days later during the dress rehearsal of Doña Francisquita at the Zarzuela Theater in Madrid, I experienced a different powerful moment. A dear friend of mine had managed to get us tickets, knowing that I very much wanted to see a Zarzuela. I had never seen one before and was very curious and excited to discover this typical Spanish Artform. What a wonderful evening it turned out to be. The theatre itself is a jewel, and the music by Amadeo Vives is lively and fun, the piece was premiered in 1923, using a big orchestra with a large guitar section added to it.

The highlight came when the Fandango, probably the most famous dance in this Zarzuela, was about to happen. We had already sat through most of the piece having enjoyed some beautiful singing, some laughter, and some flamenco dancing.  Now, in the 3rd Act, one of the protagonists suddenly came up front and spoke to the public directly explaining that the “Maestra” was here and that, totally unexpectedly, she had agreed to play for us the Fandango. My Spanish friend knew straight away who was meant, and was totally in shock and excited as Lucero Tena walked in and stood at the front of the stage waiting for the orchestra to start playing.

Lucero Tena is a legend, and I, although not knowing her until then, quickly found out why. She is now over 90 years old, and even if she doesn’t dance anymore, she most certainly plays the castanets like nobody else. The music she produces, the colours, the dynamics, the expression, the presence is absolutely breathtaking. As I sat there, I just could not believe what I was hearing. The whole audience just went crazy, and the 6 dancers who straight after danced, with their own castanets, the same Fandango, were so energized you couldn’t help but be fully taken in. Incredible!

Personal experience

The last experience I had which reminded me of the power art has, is probably the most personal. Of course, I wasn’t in Madrid just to visit, although that would be a good enough reason to go there. I was also there to perform. It turned out to be a very special performance, as this was also a present for a dear friend of mine’s birthday.

As a musician, one is very much busy thinking about this note or that rhythm, about this sound or that expression, this being together and that tempo… When the performance comes, it is necessary to let it all go, so that the performing can take place. Being an opera singer, I possess a certain amount of stage presence and acting ability. However when singing Lied, such as the Wesendonck Lieder (Richard Wagner) here, the acting becomes unnecessary, the music and especially the text are the most important.

On this evening, when singing “Träume” (the last of the cycle) I became aware of the power of my instrument and of my artistry… It is as if one touches the listener’s inner self through something unexplainable, one moves something inside… One feels the concentration, the silence, the strong emotions coming back from the audience, and really one can’t say how it happened… Quite magical really. And then, when public and performer join in a time of mutual silenced thanks after the last sound has rung, you know that you, as an artist, are important just for that.

Afterthought

Maybe I had, with all my little worries or stresses forgotten how vital and necessary my job and artform is. Not just as a performer, but also as a person. Today’s hectic competitive life often doesn’t allow us to remember this enough. But really without art, we become machines… just as in Tetsuya Ishida’s paintings. Maybe that is why these paintings were so disturbing and moving for me. It is vital to have such artists, reminding us of what is important: being a human being who feels and not a machine which produces.

Lost, 2001, Tetsuya Ishida, oil on canvas

 

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