A Different Genre of Prom

Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Verdi go to prom Credits to Susan Spector, my multi-talented mother

Mahler, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and Verdi go to prom
Credits to Susan Spector, my multi-talented mother

It is the end of May. As a high school senior, I should be excited and be looking forward to putting on makeup, my overpriced dress and shoes, and getting out on the dance floor to have a fun time at prom. For some reason, none of this sounds appealing to me. Paying $300 (dress and shoes not included) for myself, an outside date, and crappy food to be stuck in a hotel ballroom until 2:00 AM does not sound “fun”. I refuse to believe that I will look back when I am in my forties, pondering over why I chose not to attend my school’s prom. Maybe I am just a curmudgeon, but I am looking forward to prom in a different way. A different kind of prom: The BBC Proms live from Royal Albert Hall. Beginning in July over seventy concerts will be broadcast live from the great concert hall in London. This year’s program features everything from Alice Coote singing Handel with the English Concert to all five Prokofiev piano concerti. To me, this sounds far more fun, even just listening on a stereo at home, than going out on Friday night to my dreaded school prom and sitting on the Jersey Shore all weekend.

Here are twelve proms that I am looking forward to “attending”:

Logo for the BBC Proms 2015 season

Logo for the BBC Proms 2015 season

Prom 7: July 22

Prom 7 celebrates the 150th birthday of Carl Nielsen with Mark Simpson playing his iconic clarinet concerto. Instead of getting “summer vibes” from the Jersey shore, the concert will also feature the BBC Symphony under Sir Andrew Davis playing Delius’ flowery “In a Summer Garden” and Ravel’s romantic Daphnis et Chloe.

Prom 11: July 25

For something offbeat, Bryn Terfel will star as Tevye in a semi-staged version of Fiddler on the Roof. After his terrifyingly good performances as Sweeney Todd on the stages of New York and London last year, this is a not-miss. This will also be a debut for the Hampshire Grange Park Opera at the Proms.

Prom 14: July 28

To celebrate Tchaikovsky’s 175th birthday earlier this month, Valery Gergiev conducted the Mariinsky Orchestra in all three of his piano concertos with soloist Denis Matsuev. On July 28, Gergiev will accomplish a similar feat by conducting all five of Prokofiev’s piano concertos. Three different pianists will split this daunting task: Daniil Trifonov will play Concertos No. 1 and 3; Sergei Babayan will play Concertos No. 2 and 5, and Alexei Volodin will play Concerto No. 4. Gergiev conducted all five in a row with the Mariinsky in 2012. This time, however, the London Symphony will take a stab at these five monsters.

Prom 23: August 2

Considering I am going about my last days of high school thinking about prom as a “Dies Irae”, I think I should look forward to the Verdi Requiem with the BBC Scottish Symphony and Donald Runnicles on the podium. Three out of the four soloists will be making their BBC Prom debuts: Angela Meade, Yosep Kang, and Raymond Aceto. Karen Cargill sang with the BBC Scottish Symphony as the mezzo soloist in Mahler 3 at the 2010 Proms. For those hot days at the beginning of August, the Verdi Requiem is guaranteed to chill your spine.

Prom 39: August 14

I was reminded this past February how delightful a piece Die Entführung aus dem Serail is after playing the overture with my youth orchestra at Manhattan School of Music. The petite Glyndebourne Festival Opera takes the enormous Royal Albert Hall stage in this amusing work. Robin Ticciati, who most recently succeeded Vladimir Jurowski as the director of the Glyndebourne Festival in January 2014, conducts the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment.

Prom 40: August 15 – Symphonies No. 1 & 2

Prom 42: August 16 – Symphonies No. 3 & 4

Prom 43: August 17 – Symphonies No. 5, 6, & 7

All seven of Sibelius’ symphonies are being performed at the Proms this year on three separate nights. What a way to FINNISH off senior year, eh?! Ok, let’s continue…

Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Marco Borggreve

Andris Nelsons conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra © Marco Borggreve

Prom 49: August 22 – Mahler 6

Prom 51: August 23 – Shostakovich 10

On their most recent New York tour, the Boston Symphony performed Shostakovich 10 and Mahler 6 on consecutive nights. Andris Nelsons’ agile and limber movements on the podium brought joy to these pieces when I saw the BSO at Carnegie Hall in April. His stress for line and legato allows even Shostakovich’s turbulence and the pandemonium found in Mahler 6 to be lush (with the exception of the hammer blows). It will also be worth tuning in to hear John Ferrillo’s oboe playing. His cantabile and light style of playing is attractive and sweet compared to some of the pinched oboe sounds coming out of some European orchestras.

Prom 65: September 3

The beginning of September will bring Alice Coote singing Handel with the English Concert conducted by Harry Bicket. Last November, she and Joyce DiDonato costarred in Handel’s Alcina with the same orchestra, giving a fiery performance at Carnegie Hall. She will sing several cantatas and arias from various operas brought to the surface in the Marilyn Horne era of Baroque singing, including Giulio Cesare and Semele. Handel’s music has a way of taking anyone’s swirling, violent emotions, about the end of senior year for example, and rushing them into a rhythmic, powerful storm of sound. It seems to me like this would be much more exciting than the computer-fabricated dubstep at your normal, everyday prom.

Prom 66: September 4

The London Philharmonic returns to the Proms with Shostakovich 8, one of his later war symphonies. These musicians went to battle on the piece back in October of last year at Carnegie Hall, where I got to witness the low brass section give their all for Shostakovich’s demands. The trombones particularly blasted their parts, not in an ugly manner, however. Maestro Jurowski will lead Shosty 8 once again on Friday, September 4. Mitsuko Uchida will precede the Shostakovich with the Schoenberg Piano Concerto.

Jonas Kaufmann, photo featured on RAH's website © Gregor Hohenberg

Jonas Kaufmann, photo featured on RAH’s website © Gregor Hohenberg

Prom 76: September 12

Last but not least, the Last Night of the Proms will be a real treat this year. Jonas Kaufmann is this year’s featured guest who has the honor of singing “Rule, Brittania!” at the conclusion of the BBC Proms season. He will also sing several opera arias, including “Nessun Dorma” from Turandot and “Dein ist mein ganzes Herz” from Lehar’s Das Land des Lächlens. It would be a dream if Jonas Kaufmann took me to prom, however, I can settle for this amazing concert.

As I reassure myself that prom is really not crucial in the grand scheme of things, which includes graduating, going off to college, and trying to make a career in music happen, I realize that listening to the BBC Proms would be an ample substitute. They always feature fun commentary and provide a niche for classical music during the summer, while New York has an awkward gap between the spring and fall. Instead of struggling to understand why I am not enjoying the end of senior year, I will look forward to all of these BBC Proms concerts in July, August, and September.

“Chatting” about Two Boys

This fall the Met has featured many operas that many people call “typical”, such as NormaRigoletto, and Tosca on its stage. However, Two Boys is far from typical. It is like nothing the Met has ever done before.

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The story deals with, in fact, two boys (no, really?), one named Jake, age 13, and the other Brian, age 16. The opera deals with a murder mystery, a case assigned to Detective Anne Strawson, involving evidence posted on the internet through chat rooms, only it is difficult to know who is who in these chats. It is difficult, because Jake, at the tender age of 13, has several different personas that he uses to chat with Brian. There is Rebecca, a teenage girl/love interest around Brian’s age, the “Fake Jake”, or Brian’s imagination of who Jake would be, Peter, the “perv” gardner, Fiona, a friend of Jake’s who is responsible for telling Brian to kill Jake, eventually, and the real Jake eventually chats to Brian as himself. So why does Jake use all of these personas to chat with Brian? At first, Jake is interested in Brian for a relationship, but later on in the opera when the two boys meet each other in person, Brian rejects Jake’s love interest. After that, Jake twists the story and plans a murder plot…for himself. Through his personas, Jake tells Brian exactly where to get a knife and where to meet him and kill him, and Brian does exactly that, hence the first lines of the opera, “Help! Help! My friend has been stabbed!”

Nico Muhly, the composer of Two Boys, and Craig Lucas, the librettist, have something in common that no other opera composers and librettists have at the Met this year (unless you count Enchanted Island)…they are both still alive! When my mother rehearsed Two Boys on C-level and on the stage, Mr. Muhly would be listening intently, talk to orchestra members, and communicate with Maestro Robinson. Imagine if Mozart, Verdi, or Wagner could come back from the dead and do that today! My mother was even able to ask Mr. Muhly about a certain spot in the music, where the oboe was supposed to be playing in a certain way where the mouth surrounds the entire reed, or a shawm. My mother was able to play the passage a few times for Muhly, and he, (yes, the composer), was able to say “Yes, that is exactly what I want!”

Photo: Alice Coote and Paul Appleby in Two Boys

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When I walked into Two Boys, I was worried that it was going to be too modern and too eery for my taste, and that the music would sound like the work of some modern composers that I do not particularly like. I had nothing to worry about! When I first heard Two Boys I heard a lot of music that sounded like Wagner and Debussy, rather than random clinking and clonging. After the second time hearing the opera I was able to pick up on leitmotifs that follow characters around, such as the rhythmic ‘G’s on the timpani and low brass that follow Fiona around, or the chromatics that follow Anne Strawson’s mother around. The music was very interesting and indeed modern, yet I enjoyed listening to it!

The production by Bartlett Sher really caught the darkness and travesty that can occur on the internet. He used many projections of various prisms, shapes, lines, boxes, and other figures that we, as the audience, were supposed to interpret as the internet. Sher also used projections for the chat windows, where moving text could be seen line by line along with profile pictures, and even a video camera! The production also used dancers to express the randomness and complicated nature of the internet, and the chorus held laptops that produced light to glow on members’ faces. Overall, the production was very dark, except for the light of computers and projections, which captured the mysterious nature of the internet perfectly.

Photo: Act II of Two Boys, chatting between Fiona (Sandra Piques-Eddy) and Brian (Paul Appleby)

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The singing in Two Boys was magnificent. Alice Coote outdid herself as Anne Strawson. Her acting and her singing were amazing, in fact, if Two Boys ever comes back to the Met, I cannot imagine anyone else except Alice Coote singing that role! She became the detective! Paul Appleby played and sang a perfectly smug, stubborn sixteen-year old Brian. Jennifer Zetlan had a lovely lyric sound and some great high notes as Rebecca. Sandra Piques-Eddy was a very dark, evil Fiona, whenever she sang to Brian I was on the edge of my seat! Keith Miller sang a very evil Peter, in fact, he was so scary that when I told him that I was coming to see the show he said “Oh dear…”. The singing done by the chorus, and the orchestra under Maestro Robertson were also amazing! All of these roles must have been very difficult to memorize, because there are numerous short lines that characters sing when they are in “chat mode”, so bravi to everyone!

I thoroughly enjoyed Two Boys. When I first heard that this opera was coming to the Met, I honestly thought that it would be a piece that I would not like, and that I would first listen to on the radio to hear if I really would want to go see it. The complete opposite occurred. I saw it on Opening Night, and went back to see it again! Why did I like this opera so much? It felt so relatable to what I do as a teenager on the internet. First of all, I am on it all the time, just like Jake and Brian, and I love to use my blog, Twitter, and Facebook to chat with people, some I know better than others. Two Boys served as a reminder to me to be very careful on the internet, and remember that you never know who’s out there. As Fiona sang, “You don’t know me, but I know you. Choose your friends wisely”.