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.

Stalin’s Loss: A Review of the Met’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk

Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in the Met's Act II © Hiroyuki Ito, New York Times

Eva-Maria Westbroek, Brandon Jovanovich, and the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in the Met’s Act II
© Hiroyuki Ito, New York Times

Joseph Stalin attended Dmitri Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk on January 26, 1936 in Moscow. Luckily he was able to stay and see most of it, but unfortunately he stormed out, along with the rest of his Communist friends, before the final scene. He must have had something better to do. Two days later, an editorial appeared in Pravda, the Communist Party’s official agent of communication, denouncing the opera for “tickling the perverted taste of the bourgeoisie with its fidgety, screaming neurotic music” (Ashley). Many claim that this article was, in fact, written by Stalin himself. For the next 30 years, the score of Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk would remain closed, and Shostakovich would remain fearful of the secret police. He managed to tastefully revitalize himself through “A Soviet Artist’s Response to Criticism”, or his Fifth Symphony, one of his most well-known pieces.

Stalin let the Soviet Union down in numerous ways: This was one of them. Denying his people the opportunity to see this magnificent work for thirty years was a mistake. He not only made it is his own loss, but the Soviet Union’s as well.

On a happier note, the Metropolitan Opera put Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, screaming neurotic music and all, on the stage this November. The cast included Eva-Maria Westbroek in the title role, Brandon Jovanovich as the sex-hungry Sergei, with James Conlon on the podium. Fourteen years have passed since the Met last put on this Shostakovich, as it was previously done with Catherine Malfitano as Katerina and Vladimir Galouzine as Sergei under Maestro Gergiev. Between those fourteen years, Met audiences were introduced to Shostakovich’s The Nose, which holds similar connotations of “thumbing one’s nose” at Communist society, no pun intended. The Nose acted as a stepping stone to Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, in that both the Met audience’s ears and the Met Orchestra and Chorus truly stepped up their game for this more colossal work.

Eva-Maria Westbroek has had the role of Katerina Ismailova under her belt for a number of years, as she made her Royal Opera House debut in the role in 2006, and sang it at the Netherlands Opera the same year. It was so obvious in her performance that she knew the role so well, in that she truly reflected her own representation of the Katerina she wanted to be. She was very passive, laid-back, and bored, especially around the crazy circumstances that occur in the opera. The way she kept plopping herself back into the armchair or walking away after Boris would criticize her was hilarious. Musically, she sustained her range magnificently throughout the entire opera, which is a true feat, as the part is tremendously long (along the lines of Isolde or Susanna).

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich in Act I. © Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

Eva-Maria Westbroek and Brandon Jovanovich in Act I.
© Ken Howard, Metropolitan Opera

Brandon Jovanovich was a very strong Sergei. He came off as an overly-confident high school sophomore boy with a mental capacity small enough to fit only sex. He captured Sergei’s swagger so well that Jovanovich actually made the audience laugh when he claimed that he was not like the “other guys” and that he was all for “true love”. The role of Sergei requires stamina, not so much due to the length of the role, but due to the physical activity involved, which includes being whipped, making love, killing, hoisting bodies into cars, etc. He never shouted or belted; he managed to keep his line as lyrical as Sergei would allow, and he never forced. Much like his Don José, Jovanovich managed to keep his Sergei lyrical despite the physical demands required.

The Met Orchestra and Chorus seemed to honestly have fun in this work. From their acting drunk at Katerina and Sergei’s wedding ceremony to being nerdy police officers reading comic books, the Chorus had a great deal of fun on stage. The Orchestra truly brought out the snide, mocking sort of humor that Shostakovich depicted about the Communists. The percussion and extra brass gave it their all, and one only had to listen to the E-flat clarinet line just to get that sarcastic connotation. Conlon truly let everyone perform with no strings attached, no pun intended. The sound that rose from both the pit and stage was “screaming”, but in a good way, in that there was nothing careful or restricted about it.

It is a shame that the Met did not schedule Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk to be presented in movie theaters worldwide, as the production is just as insane as the plot. Graham Vick captured both the implicit and explicit sides of the housewife in the home: Explicitly through the television set, the refrigerator, the armchair, and the car; and implicitly through the dance of the vacuuming brides and symbolism pertaining to sex. Just as Sergei squeezes Katerina’s hand and points out that her “her ring of marriage is hurting”, Vick displayed the hardships of a housewife through a typical, boring household setting (she says she is bored right at the beginning), and the dances of unsatisfied wives longing for their husbands or entertainment while doing housework. Katerina fetches beer, mushrooms, and/or rat poison from the refrigerator while her father-in-law, Boris, acts as an ominous presence from the other room: A TV flashes on his face to give him an ominous glow. Between action, the wives dance in their wedding dresses with vacuums, chucking flowers on the ground to show their frustration with their dull futures and lack of excitement.

Out of this boring set emerges eroticism and sex through the hot pink bed with satin covers; a giant flower that symbolizes Katerina’s being “deflowered” in a way, and the car, in which she and Sergei place the dead Zinoviy Borisovich and on which they have sex. Through Vick’s production, it was made clear that both Sergei and Katerina are two bored people with too much time on their hands, with sex acting as both a highlight and an escape from the boring household atmosphere.

The disco ball was another great part of the production, in that it was formerly a wrecking ball used to crush the car in which Katerina’s first husband was stuffed. That same wrecking ball is later used as a party prop, a disco ball, as if Katerina and Sergei were using it to cover up their plot. Maybe if the production Stalin had seen had included a disco ball before the last scene he would not have left!

I truly hope that the Met does not go another fourteen years without doing this piece. This opera cannot be called a tragedy, in that it had everyone in stitches. This was absolute dark comedy.