A Tribute to Pierre Boulez and the Centenary Ring

When I heard Pierre Boulez had passed away on January 5, I cannot say that I let his death pervade my thoughts or affect me significantly. One of the few performances I saw him conduct was Mahler’s Symphony No. 8 at Carnegie Hall in May of 2009. The piece was what it was, gargantuan and monumental, but I did not feel uplifted when I left the auditorium, which is normally a given after listening to the “Symphony of a Thousand”.

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Pierre Boulez, ca. 1976 ©Pierre Petitjean

That was until I was introduced to his Jahrhundertring, or the “Centenary Ring” production presented at the Bayreuth Festival in 1976 for the one hundredth anniversary of Wagner’s four-part series of epic music dramas. In a collaboration with the legendary French director Patrice Chéreau, Maestro Boulez and he created a launching pad for “Regietheater”, advocating broad-mindedness for not only musical interpretation, but taking liberties with the staging and setting as well. The artists in this revolutionary production did not channel their characters in traditional mythological garb: Sir Donald McIntyre’s Wotan was dressed in a frock coat as a banker in the Industrial Revolution, and Gunther sports a tuxedo to contrast with his blood-sworn brother Siegfried, who is dressed in rags as a dragon-killing, mountain-climbing, fire-jumping hero. The Ring itself is born from gold stolen from a hydro-electric plant, not from the banks of the peacefully blue Rhine river.The struggle between capitalists (Wotan and the rest of the Godly race) and the working class (the Nibelungs) undermines the conventional Norse mythology found in Wagner’s work.

Boulez and Chéreau’s combined work was booed mercilessly at Bayreuth for years. After its final performance in 1980, however, it was given a 45-minute ovation, showing that the staging of opera was moving in a new direction and that audiences were conforming and opening up in response.

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Sir Donald McIntyre as Wotan in the final scene of Act III of Die Walküre

Nothing like Boulez and Chéreau’s collaboration had ever been done anywhere else previously, let alone atop the sacred Green Hill. Remember in 2013 when audiences for the Met’s new production of Parsifal were getting hot flashes because Jonas Kaufmann unexpectedly loses his shirt before his big smooch with the supernatural Kundry? That erotic style of staging for Wagner was very similar to the staging for Peter Hofmann, another very good-looking German tenor, as he loses his shirt during the Todesverkündigung with Brünnhilde. What seemed deranged and nutty back in the late seventies is perceived as typical on today’s stages. Maestro Boulez was a man ahead of his time.

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Peter Hofmann as Siegmund and Gwyneth Jones as Brünnhilde in Act II of Die Walküre

While I may not have enjoyed some of his speedy tempi and abrupt endings to phrases, I understand that his background of contribution to the development of innovations such as computer music, integral serialism, and controlled chanced allowed him to introduce opera to the future, and looking back from 2016, the longterm. The intense, dramatic acting and intimacy between characters implemented in the Centenary Ring has become a necessity for Ring productions today. Maestro Boulez created a new standard with which opera directors in the present day work, and for that, the music world should be forever grateful.

Conquering Fear at BSM Brass Week

Last week I conquered one of my greatest fears: Sleepaway camp. The idea of leaving my tempur-pedic mattress and guaranteed air conditioning to venture to essentially the middle of nowhere had always troubled my mind. For the last few summers, I’ve scrolled through my Facebook newsfeed seeing fellow high school musicians posting photos from countless summer programs such as Tanglewood, Chautauqua, you name it, as I sit in my comfy chair with my laptop wearing sweatpants. Even though I have spent the last several summers continuing voice, piano, and French horn lessons from the academic year, and even participating in a chamber music day camp on piano last summer, I still felt like I could have been accomplishing more at a program that would require me to sleep over. This summer was the summer I would cure this personal fear.

For seven whole days I ate, slept, and played French horn in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, at Berkshire Summer Music, a program initiated my Met Principal Trumpet David Krauss and his wife Kristen that is just in its second year of operation. The program is held on the campus of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, an early college during the academic year for child prodigies and geniuses who graduate high school before the twelfth or eleventh grades. The first week of the program is dedicated to brass players, and is thus known as Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week. For a program so new and small, the faculty is incredibly rich, including David Krauss, MET Principal Trumpet; Joseph Foley, Principal Trumpet of the Rhode Island Philharmonic; Erik Ralske and Javier Gandara, First and Third Horns of the MET Orchestra; Toby Oft, Principal Trombone of the Boston Symphony; and Denson Paul Pollard, Tenor/Bass Trombone of the MET Orchestra. Each day was packed with studio classes, lessons, coachings, mock auditions, recitals, and concerts by faculty and students, leaving me with little to no time at all to fret about being away from home. In fact, by the time I left the camp after the final concert, I was sad to say goodbye.

I felt very intimidated the first day I was there. Many of my new fellow campers had already gone for years to Tanglewood, Kinhaven, Interlochen, and other famed summer music institutions. I was a rookie, and I knew it. I was not only a camp rookie, but as I was coming from a background spiced more with opera and vocal repertoire, my knowledge of horn and brass repertoire was fairly limited. I figured out by the second day that this did not matter at all. In a master class held by Javier Gandara, I played an arrangement of “Va tacito e nascosto”, one my favorite arias from Handel’s Giulio Cesare, featuring a huge horn solo. It was neither a concerto, nor a fancy etude. After having listened to others perform pieces for him such as the Weber Concertino and etudes by Gallay, I walked in somewhat sheepishly feeling that my Handel was overly simplistic. Never would I have thought that I would learn so much about articulation, phrasing, color, and singing through the horn with my uncomplicated piece. I had Strauss 1 and Dukas’ Villanelle as complex pieces on the back burner for the master class, but from a piece as simple as “Va Tacito”, I learned so much, thanks to Javier’s amazing insight. It is astounding just how much he knows about the horn.

Later on, I even gained enough confidence to play the excerpt from the opening of Mahler 9 in front of MET Principal Horn Erik Ralske, who had just played that very same solo so elegantly with the MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall in October. I had been there to see it and had been moved to tears by his playing. As one can imagine, I was scared right down to my socks. My heartbeat was just as irregular as that of Mahler when he was writing his Ninth; The first movement is underscored by an uneven beat which is meant to symbolize Mahler’s failing heart and health. I then remembered: this is summer camp. We’re all here because we share a love for music and we’re here to help each other. This isn’t an actual audition or performance. I played the solo flawlessly, and with Erik’s invaluable advice, I was able to make more not only of the notes and phrasing but even the rests- something to which I had not previously given any thought.

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 Horn Studio on the steps of the Kellogg Music Center. Erik Ralske and Javier Gandara are pictured on the top row

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 Horn Studio on the steps of the Kellogg Music Center. Erik Ralske and Javier Gandara are pictured on the top row

Despite my trouble sleeping during the first couple of nights, it was worth the tossing and turning to try new things at camp that I would never have been able to do lounging at home in my sweatpants. Never before had I played in horn quartets, let alone octets. On the first night, I ended up spontaneously joining a pick-up horn quartet in which I played some of my all-time favorite pieces: The Pilgrims Chorus from Tannhäuser, The “Wach auf” chorus from Die Meistersinger, and a bit of Schumann’s Konzertstück. I was even introduced to composers of whom I had heard, such as Gabrielli, but whose music I had never actually played. It did not matter that other people in the group were in the middle of or had completed their masters or bachelors degrees at prestigious conservatories, while I had not even begun pursuing my degree at MSM on a completely different instrument. We all simply loved the horn and the sound it makes. The horn octet in which I played was the performance portion of our horn studio class. Throughout the week and at the final concert, we played Abendsegen from Hansel und Gretel (I played fourth horn next to Javier- MET Third Horn!!), an arrangement of “Soave sia il vento” from Così fan tutte, and arrangements of Requiem and Kyrie, Rex Tremendae, and Sanctus from the Verdi Requiem. After years of feeling honored to be able to listen to these pieces in opera houses and concert halls, it was even more of an honor to actually play them. The feeling of playing in the very quiet beginning of the Verdi Requiem is indescribable.

Another thing that I had never done before is play a composer’s music for a composer himself. American composer Eric Ewazen joined the camp for a couple of days to listen to ensembles play his pieces in master classes and recitals. One morning, I woke up having never heard of Eric Ewazen or his Grand Canyon Suite for horn octet. In the afternoon, I was playing the first movement of it under his baton. In the evening, we sat at the same table for dinner discussing Wagner and other fun music trivia. Any anxiety about my lack of knowledge of his music was completely wiped away by his beaming smile, as I sat fascinated by the fact that I was eating dinner and conversing with a live composer. Thanks to BSM Brass Week, this was made possible.

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 students and faculty. Eric Ewazen is pictured in the blue plaid shirt. (From left to right at the bottom of the photo: Erik Ralske, Javier Gandara, Denson Paul Pollard, David Krauss (up a step), and Toby Oft)

Berkshire Summer Music Brass Week 2015 students and faculty. Eric Ewazen is pictured in the blue plaid shirt. (From left to right at the bottom of the photo: Erik Ralske, Javier Gandara, Denson Paul Pollard, David Krauss (up a step), and Toby Oft)

Berkshire Summer Music became a family. I would be sitting alone at a table for dinner, and it would later fill up with renowned faculty and students, who are now friends, from all over the world. Discussions ranged from different types of mutes to appreciation of the structure of Bruckner symphonies versus Mahler symphonies to Wagner’s Ring. We even watched all of Das Rheingold together as part of BSM Brass Week’s movie night. By the end of the week, I felt like I truly belonged at this wonderful institution, surrounded by great and talented people. Now, I feel ready to take on any previously scary-sounding six to nine week music program out there and meet more of the small world of classical music. Thank you, BSM Brass Week, for helping me conquer my fear…and enabling me to learn a lot about music and a bit about myself, too.