The absolutely underestimated: Lili Boulanger

100 years ago a great artist died. By which I do not mean Leonard Bernstein, Gustav Klimt, Karl Marx or Ingmar Bergmann. Following the just passed world women´s day, I decided to write about a woman: the composer Lili Boulanger!

Just a couple of days ago, I was talking about Lili Boulanger and how she is rarely performed on stage. Then I happened to go to a concert at the Prinzregententheater in Munich. Romantic composers were on the programm: Janine Jansen played Robert Schumann, Clara Schumann and César Franck. Jansen played great. She found the perfect tempi and gave the violin a very soft sound, combined with strong outbursts. The audience was absolutely quiet and applauded frenetically. So, she played an encore. And: surprise! It was the Nocturne by Lili Boulanger. As if I would have guessed.

The young composer Lili Boulanger wrote this piece in 1911, at an age of only 18. She wrote it just before she even begun her formal studies in composition and finished it in just two days. It still is one of her most famous works.

A young composer who died too early
Lili Boulanger

The composer was born in 1893. Her musical talent already showed at an early age. By the time she was six years old, she was sight-singing songs with the composer Gabriel Fauré at the piano. She also studied with her older sister, Nadia. Also, her parents brought musical education to the family. The young woman composed only a very few oeuvres and died far too early, in 1918, only aged 24.

Influences and role models

Lili Boulanger was widely influenced by the composers Claude Debussy and Richard Wagner. In the Nocturne, everything relates to both of them. She definitely took the first few notes from Debussy’s “Prelude à l’après-midi d’un faune”, and inserted them into her own composition. Also, she used short phrases from Wagner’s Tristan. However, the Nocturne is a brilliant composition by the young composer.

The Nocturne was first written for flute or violin and piano but has been orchestrated in a following version. Unfortunately, the orchestral transcription was never published and has been lost.

What followed

In 1912, one year after the Nocturne, Boulanger won the Prix de Rome. Shortly after that, she became very ill. She suffered from chronic illnesses, beginning with a case of bronchial pneumonia at age two that weakened her immune system, leading to the “intestinal tuberculosis” that ended her life at the age of 24.

Prinzregententheater in Munich

What impact Lili Boulanger’s work really has, is hard to say. But when Janine Jansen played the last notes of the Nocturne, the whole audience was enchanted. And this is a good enough reason to look at this absolutely underestimated composer closer.

 

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It needs to change !

It’s been several years that I am going to the opera and I am scandalized by the mediocrity and the absurdity of staging. The problem being that this phenomenon is not rare, on the contrary, it has settled during the last decades.

Indeed, it is not uncommon to hear people booing the staging and yet nothing changes. We continue to give all the power to these artists, these great thinkers. We remain in this incomprehensible model of incoherence and, when we are lucky, we are satisfied with the feeling of “it did not disturb”. Excuse me? What did you say? A lucky chance? My bad…

That amazes me!

It seems to me that staging should participate in the success of the Opera, respect it, at least. I have often been able to hear people trying to find explanations, analyze what the director would like us to understand, what he would like to pass as a message, often unrelated to the work. In my opinion, from the moment we have to explain art to understand it, especially in music, then we move away from what art is. As Debussy said, “Music must humbly seek pleasure” and so should art do too. If we are forced to intellectualize art, it loses all its meaning.

I have the impression that we use the opera scenes to convey ideas that do not serve the work, often outright provocations. Commited scenes do not revolt me, on the contrary. Indeed, if the commitment, or the provocation of some staging is related to the text, respects the interpreters and the score, I say: Bravo . But to use singers like puppets to make them do anything, to make them sing at the back of the stage (without any acoustic help) or sing upside down, doesn’t do their voices justice and is a lack of common sense. To remove elements from the score or not to respect the specific wishes of the composers just doesn’t make any sense. I’m thinking, for example,  of the Guillotine in the “Dialogues des Carmelites” of Poulenc. This is an entire part of the score and libretto (sound of the guillotine in action and choir  voices disapearing one by one…). In the Munich production it was replaced by gas chambers and people surviving when they should not, loosing all the links with the libretto and the score. It is just one example out of hundreds. This is disrespectful and it is not a different interpretation but a deliberately distorted narration: it is inadmissible and should not be allowed.

It would be as if the conductor decided that the solo of Thais’ meditation should be played by a Xylophone, or that the musicians decide to play an improvisation whenever it isn’t written .

And yes, I can already hear the reactions: “No, we will not do re-staging of dusty, classics. We need new, we need change, we need to shake things up!” But I must say that the clean style sets, suits and ties costumes, the naked men, the men in heels, the scenes of sex, the blood everywhere… there is nothing new here. It has been seen over and over again! 

So, yes, let’s use the modern means instead. The technology for the benefit of all as in the exhibition in Vienna “Insights into Bruegel” that one had the pleasure to discover through Culturmania’s eyes or as in the latest production at the Munich Opera of  Krenek’s “Karl V” created by the great and innovative Fura del Baus. It is brilliant, it is good, so : it is possible! But doing just anything to change or be provative is a bad excuse for the lack of inspiration and ignorance of some.

I had the experience, in Paris during a concert version of “die Wallküre” at the Champs Elysées Theater, to hear one in the public screaming: “Thanks! we can finally enjoy the music without being disturbed by an absurd staging!!” and everyone applauded… It’s sad to get to this point.

Staging is part of a show, a performance at the Opera. The Sight and Hearing should work together to give us a successful evening. It is also the responsibility of the Opera Houses worldwide to no longer accept that stage directors are allowed to be all-mighty, capricious, or not professional.  Because as we can see, concert version works just as well and may work better and better. Shouldn t the Opera Houses ask themselves : What does the public want?  

The public knows what they came to hear, in fact, they chose to come to hear it. Subtle respect for the interpreters, the text and the score is, in the end, all that is asked for. Staging should  serve the Opera first, like the singers, the conductors, the musicians. Add a touch of dream, humour, poetry, emotion and most of all to take us further, allow us to extricate ourselves from reality for a few hours… It is in fact simple. 

 

Erica Luisella

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The perks of standing first row

This post is not about theatre, concerts or exhibitions. It more or less is a summary for all cultural events. In general one gets up, leaves the house and finds oneself sourrounded by other people, with similar thoughts and feelings about the event one goes to. The stage is the most important place in the location. Position counts! People seek for the best view or sound, or whatever. It´s all about standing in the first row! In events,  as well as in life!

But why is this so? Are we nor civilized beings, who should be able to talk to each other, instead of fighting for a superior stand?

This is why following you find my general thoughts concerning the perks of standing first row.

All the time we stand in between something. Our whole life tends to go between rows. When going out, it seems we have to compensate this fact: wherever we go, there always is the need of being first.

Not only in concerts or cultural events. It already starts with being on the subway. Once the doors open everyone seems to need to get in there as soon as possible. Our brain, under these circumstances, does not realize, that it even slows us down. Being inside first does not help the train go faster. It even slows down the process of people entering.

This same first row problem is valid for concerts

When I entered the concert hall Zenith in Munich the other day, to see Ben Howard, it already was quite crowded. People were jostling to see and hear best, not thinking about others. Everybody had payed the same fee and just happened to be there at different times.

This article title clearly contributes to the movie “The Perks of being a wallflower”. Though it deals with the exact opposite. People tend to become very pushy once it´s about their personal advantage.

Ben Howard in Munich

This obviously does not count for everybody, but for many many guests of events.

I don’t really have a conclusion to this, except for: Be kind! It´s not about being first in row, but first in YOUR life!

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Anna Karenina – a night at the ballet

Ballet

I am not a regular Ballet go-er, but since becoming close friends with a Ballerina I have had the opportunity to get to know this world more and more. It is true that sometimes this art form can seem a little mannered.  All the tutus, the men in tights, the pantomimic gestures, the point shoes… But on an evening such as this one at the Bayerische Staatsballet, I am reminded that thinking in this way is being totally unfair to this art form. A story such as Anna Karenina‘s can be very movingly and clearly told in a non-kitsch way, with pointed shoes and wonderful dancing.

I had read the Tolstoi novel years ago and only recalled vaguely bits of it. So I did not really know what to expect. I found myself going down memory lane: the train, the balls, the winter, the summer heat in the fields and of course the love affair and its consequences leading to Anna Karenina’s delirious state. They all came back to me! That Russian fin de siècle atmosphere in all its opulence, how wonderful!

Curtain up

No big red curtain when coming in. It starts with a steam engine soundtrack, the train is rolling on, the dancers set in a freeze with a black and white video of a close up of the train. The atmosphere is set! We are at the train station. The place where Anna Karenina and the Count Alexej Wronski first meet. The choreography, by Christian Spuck, allows all scenes to be so clearly recognisable with the only help of a curtain in the back and the dancers’ costumes and props ( set by Jörg Zielinski and Christian Spuck).

For me, there are two major aspects which make this evening magical: the scenic and atmospheric changes, with just a few movements and the music!

A new scene is set

Just a few moves and we are at the horse’s races. This staging reminded me of a very similar scene in the film “My Fair Lady”. The whole atmosphere and stage changed in a couple of seconds, suddenly the public is on the tribunes. It is watching the races through binoculars. i.e. hands. I just love this kind of magic! One knows what is happening and yet one doesn’t have everything so obviously pointed out. The men working on the rail tracks is just another such scene. One can feel the heat, the sweat.

The imagination is allowed to take over and to make its own associations just through movement. It’s an open stage, nothing more. The love scene between Karenina and Wronski is two dancers… Just dance, with an incredibly intense and passionate, but also destructive and violent love act. The desperation of Karenina to see her son, her undecisive husband who then gives in to the overhand of the Countess Lidija Iwanowna is beautifully told without any unnecessary prop or set. Wonderful!

The music

The second factor making this evening magical is the music. A fabulous sound landscape, a mixture between tracks of steam engines and hammering, orchestral sections with or without piano, solo piano pieces or even piano and voice songs. A mixture of romantic Russian music at its best, modern music and soundtracks. Sergej Rachmaninov, Witold Lutislawski, Sulkhan Tsintzadze and Josef Bardanashvili are the composers. The piano has a leading role with Adrian Oetiker giving strong renditions of Rachmaninov’s third concerto among others. Such a wonderful choice and use of music. It is an incredible wide scope of sound images all enhancing the atmosphere and the story. I am thrilled!

The dancers

Of course, all this would be of no use without the dancers, and they are superb! Ksenia Rhyzhkova just is Anna Karenina, Matthew Golding the Count Wronski, Jonah Cook, and Lauretta Summerscales are the so charming and sweet couple Kitty and Kostya, and the couple Dolly and Stiwa are danced by Javier Amo -whose presence I truly enjoy- and Elvina Ibraimova. Making the evening complete and perfect are the costumes by Emma Ryott.

I have to say, this was a truly fabulous evening! It reminds me of what theatre, is about: getting the public’s imagination going, never getting boring, keeping one involved with what is happening on stage and bringing up emotions! Bravo!

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String quartets in the Allerheiligen Hofkirche

Allerheiligen Hofkirche

On a grey November Sunday morning I followed an invitation to hear a chamber music matinee in the Allerheiligen Hofkirche in Munich. It has been absolute ages since I have been to a string quartet concert. Coming from a musical family, with a cellist as a sister I enjoy chamber music, especially having played the violin as a teenager. So my knowledge of the repertoire is pretty good, even though I am no expert. The program, however, offered a new hearing for me: Béla Bartók‘s String quartet Nr.5, Sz 102. That got my interest going.

The venue: Allerheiligen Hofkirche

This is such a wonderful venue, that I must write a bit about it. The Allerheiligen Hofkirche was a Catholic church and it was built between 1826 and 1837. Following a visit to Palermo and the admiration of inner frescoes there, the then crown prince Ludwig decided to have a church built in a similar style as part of his Residenz. Leo von Klenze, the architect followed the crown prince’s wishes, extending his inspiration to the Marcus Dome in Venice. The interior with its vaults covered coloured frescoes was built in a Romanesque style while the facade was more gothic. This was the first church built in Bavaria after the secularization in 1803, hence its name “All Saints”.

During the Second World War, the church, the Residenz and the National Theater were very heavily damaged. Unlike the Residenz, it was left to deteriorate for years before a decision was taken. First wanting to tear it down, the city then decided to renovate it following a huge uproar by the citizens of Munich. The renovations started in 1972 under the leadership of Hans Döllgast. After his death in the 1980s, restorations continued with new cupolas and work on the facade. Then from 2000 to 2003 work on the interior was taken over by the Architects Buro Guggenbichler und Netzer before it was finally opened to the public.

The damages made to the church are visible as a testimony. The frescoes are left in their spare segments, the pillars have lines where they were put back together. All this was done very respectfully and beautifully. This gives the hall a wonderful atmosphere, which is enhanced through the warm and indirect lighting and through the red bricks. And so it is that the Allerheilgen Hofkirche became a Hall. It is no longer used as a church but as a concert venue, it’s acoustic being excellent, and as a venue for special events.

The performance

Beginning this program is Dvorák’s string quartet Nr. 14 in A flat Major op.105. The cello starts with a slow introduction. It is leading the others before moving on to an allegro appassionato movement. Dvoràk started writing this quartet when leaving the United States after 3 years there to move back to his beloved Prag. This is his last string quartet. Wonderful piani, colours, interaction, all played sensitively and beautifully by the musicians. The quartet players are members of the Bayerische Staatsorchester: Johanna Beisinghoff, Julia Pfister, Monika Hettinger and Anja Fabricius. It is a pleasure to watch them play.

The second half is Bartók’s string quartet Nr. 5 Sz 102, and this for me is a discovery. I never really thought of Bartók’s music as being full of humour. This piece changed my mind fully. I just love the pastiche classical section in the last movement, the playing with “out” of tune effects, the glissandi and jazzy rhythm in the cello pizzicati. Bartók only needed a month to compose this piece in the summer of 1934. The first performance was then on 8th April 1935 in the Coolidge Auditorium in Washington. This work has all that is so typical of Bartók, the accented rhythms, the complex harmonies. It is also so playfully modern experimenting with sound effects, sound landscapes. A wonderful work.

Postlude

Walking out in the grey November mist with the afternoon ahead of me, I couldn’t help but smile. The impressions of the morning were going through my mind… the discovery of Bartók’s quartet, the excellent playing of the musicians, the so wonderful atmosphere of the Allerheiligen Hofkirche… All this made it a wonderful start to that Sunday.

 

 

 

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A Weekend with Mattiel

Going to concerts normally does not take that much of an effort for me. But seeing that my beloved singer Mattiel, aka. Mattiel Brown does not play in Germany, I needed to think of an alternative. Then I found out she was playing in Dublin on a Saturday – and so I went!

 

A weekend off, Dublin and a concert ahead. Could it get any better? After arriving Friday night, Saturday started with excitement: the
first stop was Trinity College. And what luck, it was open-door day! I ended up spending lots of time there, seeing all the halls and libraries and the colleges´ yard. The highlight, above all else, was the Old Library. I had the chance to get online tickets in advance and so didn´t have to line up.

Seeing Trinity Colleges´ old library with all its history has been a dream of mine for a long time. I had been to Dublin before, but never had had the chance to go there.

Entering the sacred halls felt like entering history

The only sad thing are all the tourists who don´t seem to have an understanding of what they are dealing with. I have noticed before,  that many people who travel just want to go to places to check them off their lists. At that moment walking in the library that  feeling became very obvious to me again. And that is a shame. Still – after I managed to get over that fact, a new world opened to me.

The Old Library, Trinity College

All those books, framed by statues of their authors, the wide setting of shelves and the high ceiling – they all made me forget the people around me. Old books have a specific smell. This smell suddenly surrounded me and I felt like dipping into another world, in which cellphones and flash photography doesn’t exist.

Finally, venue business

After a stroll trough the city it finally was time to go to the venue of the concert. ‘The Grand Social’ at first seemed to be just a bar. Soon I realized however that this is far from the truth. ‘The Grand Social’ is a maze! Once in, you start wandering around corridor after corridor. Then finally, you get to the venue itself, which is far smaller then I expected. This turns out to be an advantage: it´s much cosier and during the opening act, Mattiel is standing in the crowd – right next to me- and cheering Roe up.

Roe actually is doing a great job! She stands on the stage all alone, is very shy and still has lots of power! Everyone listens to her music very concentrated and applauds ecstatically after her energetic songs, which are a mixture of great songwriting and electronic music:

One hour later Mattiel comes on. And what shall I say? It was horrible!
The mixing of the sound didn´t work, Mattiel herself did not interact with the audience at all. Her band had to do all that for her. She only concentrates on hersef and never even smiles. Does she even want to be here?

The concert itself: Mattiel in action

Mattiels artistic story is not the  familiar one:  Atlanta’s rising star, Mattiel Brown, is a rare exception to the time-honoured tradition. She is a fulfilled creative artist working day and night, albeit in different contexts. Working as set designer, designer and painter, she found her path to music late. It was when she started having heavy problems with her skin, that she began writing songs. She has just released her very first album.

Maybe that is the reason why she doesn´t really know what to do on stage? I mean: she dances and even seems to be in trance. But she´s just not reaching me.

Still, the evening was well spend. I absolutely recommend Roe to everyone! This Irish jewel is waiting to be discovered!

More Irish Jewels 😉
 What´s left to say?

Sunday I went to the beach, hiked the cliffs of Howth and enjoyed the surprisingly good weather. And what shall I say? I did not want to leave, still did, but I definitely will go back – Ireland, you are beautiful.

The Cliffs of Howth

 

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