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.

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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.

Six Hours of Stamina: A Review of the Met’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg

One can spend a six-hour period of time doing a lot of things. It is about the length of a school day, it is how long you have to practice driving before getting a permit in the state of New Jersey, and one could watch La Bohème more than two times with two intermissions. Die Meistersinger by itself runs six hours long: Evenings from 6:00 to midnight; matinées from noon to 6:00. Sitting for six hours in front of the Met Orchestra, Chorus, and soloists was definitely worthwhile.

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Michael Volle as Hans Sachs with the Metropolitan Opera Chorus in Act III of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, The Metropolitan Opera, December 2014, © Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

This Meistersinger was all about stamina. Both Michael Volle and Johan Botha triumphantly made it through their lengthy roles. Volle managed to stay lyrical and strong throughout, without giving way to speaking or cracking. As James Morris once said: The part of Hans Sachs is longer than all three Wotans of Wagner’s Ring Cycle put together, therefore, it is a real trial for even a true professional to sing it through. Volle remained poetic throughout, appropriately similar to Hans Sachs’ profession, by caressing the text and making it meaningful. This was especially shown in Act III Scene 1, when he helps Walther compose his prize song. It was obvious that the lyricism of Botha’s singing and the lyrics themselves meant something to Volle, as he went from scribbling to pacing to listening. Despite Sachs being one of the longest roles in all of opera, Volle displayed that he has mastered the character, especially after singing it in Salzburg and other houses. He was very active throughout the duration of the performance, consistently staying conscious of his endurance.

Botha played the perfectly clueless Walther who stumbles upon the Mastersingers and their set traditions. His expressive “Am stillen herd” rang through the house beautifully. By Act III, Botha showed absolutely no sign of fatigue, pitch-trouble or hoarseness. The chorus had no reason to laugh at him as they did at Beckmesser earlier in the final scene. Stamina was definitely on his side, just as it was for Volle.

Johannes Martin Kränzle’s Beckmesser was truly the highlight of my six hours. For once, Beckmesser was played without being overdone. Beckmesser is a mastersinger himself, after all, he is not supposed to sound ugly. Kränzle managed to portray the snide town clerk while simultaneously keeping his line lyrical, or like that of a mastersinger. His duet with Sachs that ends the second act had me in stitches, not because it sounded awful, but because it was actually funny!

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Annette Dasch as Eva with Hans-Peter König as Pogner in Act II of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, The Metropolitan Opera, December 2014, © Beth Bergman/Metropolitan Opera

Annette Dasch’s ringing top really works well in the Met’s 4,000-seat theater. While it covered some singers at times during ensembles, such as the Act III quintet, it managed to float above rather than completely obliterate the other singers’ sound. For a woman who just recently gave birth, Dasch played a very youthful and spritely Eva. Her sparkling blue eyes and her bouncy blonde wig made her a very innocent-looking catch for Walther and Beckmesser alike. After a five-year absence since her Met debut as the Countess in Le Nozze di Figaro, it is lovely to have her back on the Met stage.

Karen Cargill played the matronly, no-nonsense Magdalena, which fit her dark, resonant low register into which the whole audience sank. Her boyfriend David, sung by Paul Appleby, complimented her well with his low and middle register. At times, it was a bit difficult to hear his top. However, his athleticism and animation in the brawl at the end of Act II and in his monologue in the middle of Act I, respectively, were very entertaining. After seeing him as the internet-introvert Brian in Nico Muhly’s Two Boys last season, it was great to see him in higher spirits.

The Met Orchestra and Met Chorus both performed brilliantly. The woodwinds sounded particularly crisp on the fugue-like passages, and the brass sounded rich and powerful. The Chorus, as always, looked like they were having such a fun time. From teasing David in Act I, to pillow fights in Act II, to the Festwiese in Act III, they too were conscious of both their stamina and their acting.

I look forward to seeing Die Meistersinger again this coming Tuesday, December 23: The last time it will be put on the Met stage in the iconic Otto Schenck production. It will truly be missed!

Meistersinger Memories

The Metropolitan Opera puts Richard Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg on the stage this month. The cast includes South African heldentenor Johan Botha in the title role; James Morris/Michael Volle as Hans Sachs; German soprano Annette Dasch as Eva; Paul Appleby as David; Karen Cargill as Magdalena; and Hans-Peter König as Pogner. Die Meistersinger is being welcomed back to the Met with open arms, as last season’s repertoire included no Wagner whatsoever. The last time the Met performed Die Meistersinger was in March of 2007; I was only nine at the time. However, even at my young age, I went to the see the opera several times, and I was seen singing on stage in the final scene of Act III alongside the Met Chorus, James Morris, and the Met Orchestra, all under the baton of James Levine.

My parents introduced me to Wagner at a very young age, when I incidentally heard a broadcast of Siegfried from the Bayreuth Festival at age five. This spawned an interest that swept my family upstairs to watch the entirety of the Otto Schenk Ring on DVD, and a year later, to the Met to see the Ring live (with my teddy bear, of course). Wagner’s music, from then on, had a greater meaning for me.

I joined the Met Children’s Chorus when I was eight years old, and only about six months later I was cast as a supernumerary, a character that does not sing or speak, in Mascagni’s Cavelleria Rusticana. I knew before entering the chorus the season before, 2005-06, that Die Meistersinger would be on the stage that March. I wanted so badly to be cast, knowing that it was Wagner’s music and that it happened to be my father’s all-time favorite opera. It would have meant the world to me to sing the music of the very composer who harvested my interest in opera.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
I am pictured on the right with long blonde hair and a brown apron.

In February of 2007, to my luck, I was cast in Die Meistersinger: The first opera in which I actually had a singing role. I vividly remember my mother picking me up from my fourth grade classroom so we could go into the city for “our” rehearsals. At the Met, the ten of us in the Children’s Chorus would change into our costumes, mine included a beautifully embroidered white frock, a brown apron, and a flower and ribbon-bedecked wreath pinned in my hair, and we would then head down to the Met stage. The assistant directors gave us directions about our entrances, exits, where we would leave props, how we should avoid getting in the way of the artists, and other crucial information. We would run the scene a couple of times each rehearsal, so I constantly hoped that James Levine or the directors would want to run it more than once so I could go back on the stage in my costume (or because I did not want to return to school for the last part of the day). I even once joked with Johan Botha, our Walther von Stolzing, backstage that he would have to win Eva again when we did a repeat of the scene. He let out a boisterous laugh.

The day of the final dress rehearsal came. Both of my parents were there: My mother played Second Oboe in the orchestra pit, and my father was in the audience. There was a twist, though: I sat in the audience with my dad for Acts I and II before I was called to warm up backstage for Act III. It felt so good to experience seeing Die Meistersinger for the first time with him, as he had been telling me for years how much it meant to him, and how much he looked forward to the day when he would share it with me live. That day had come.

I watched Johan Botha, James Morris, my mother, Maestro Levine, and many of the same people performing in this current December run give it their all in the first two acts. My dad then took me backstage so I could perform with them in the next act. We warmed up, put on our costumes, and headed down to the stage after we heard “Children’s Chorus to the stage (along with hundreds of others)” on the backstage PA system. After the quintet at the end of Act III Scene 1, Wagner wrote a ninety-second interlude to the second scene of the act. That is how long the talented, hard-working Met stagehands have to change the set of Sachs’ home into the meadows in the outskirts of Nürnberg for the song contest. Standing off stage right, I stood in disbelief as stagehands swirled around Sachs’ books, furniture, and desk, replacing them with banners, greenery, backdrops, and benches, let alone at least a hundred choristers and soloists. The soloists from the quintet would skip offstage just near where I was standing, so I would get waves of hello from Matthew Polenzani, who sang David, and others. It truly felt surreal to be in the middle of all of this.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Members of the  Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus skipping around the tailors

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Members of the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus skipping around the tailors

After ninety seconds, most of the chorus ran or jumped onstage in excitement for Johannistag, the festival being celebrated. My entrance came just after the curtain opened, when the timpani starts rumbling. I remember the assistant director telling me “Run on right after the sausage man”, or one of the many merchants on stage selling his craft at the festival. I ran on, big-eyed, to see 4,000 faces in the Met audience, the Met Orchestra creating swells of sound, and everyone on stage enjoying the festivities. The shoemakers, the tailors, and the bakers would arrive, in that order, to present their products and make us laugh. Each of the children in the chorus were given little, fake trumpets to skip around the dancing tailors in a circle (I was always worried about tripping in my dress).  Soon after the dance started, in which all of us taunted David about “Lena” watching him dance with other girls, pointing in different directions of where she was to confuse him. The dance suddenly stopped because the master singers  were about to enter in the procession. John del Carlo, who sang Kothner, would always be one of the first masters out, walking downstage with his radiant smile. Hans Sachs would always enter last, picking up one of the children as he marched downstage to the sound of our cheers. After whispers of “Silentium”, the Chorus serenaded him in the great “Wach auf”, or “Wake up”, chorus, describing how a new day was dawning. I stood front and center, right next to James Morris, without an obstacle in the way of James Levine’s beat. Sachs responded in his monologue, praising the masters and the arts, leading to the song competition itself.

The choristers returned to their places and sat down in the grass, under the hot lights, to enjoy the contest. Beckmesser, sung by Hans-Joachim Ketelsen, began his song. He had stolen the lyrics from Sachs in the previous scene, but unfortunately he memorized the words incorrectly. We all laughed at his making a fool of himself until he stopped and blamed his performance on Sachs. As much as I feel the real children at the festival would have wanted to stay and hear Walther von Stolzing sing the Prize Song, the Metropolitan Opera Children’s Chorus chased Beckmesser offstage after he embarrassed himself. All of us then went back upstairs to the Children’s Chorus studio, changed out of our costumes, and greeted our parents at the stage door close to midnight.

Act III Scene 2 of "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg", Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007 Laughing at Beckmesser

Act III Scene 2 of “Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg”, Metropolitan Opera, March 2007. © Beth Bergman 2007
Laughing at Beckmesser

Four more performances would follow this final dress rehearsal, and each of them were completed in the same fashion as the last. At all five performances, including the dress rehearsal, I shared the first two acts with my father in the audience, and sang on stage in Act III.

Seeing the final dress rehearsal of Die Meistersinger last Friday afternoon was tough. As I enjoyed the entirety of my Children’s Chorus career, even seeing the Children’s Chorus now sing in operas like Carmen and La Bohème makes me wistful. The children in this run are actually only supernumeraries, so they do not get to sing in the “Wach auf” chorus. However, seeing those kids up on the Met stage taking in that scene and being surrounded by Wagner’s music felt fulfilling, in that I was given the chance to perform in 2007, in place of someone else, and now someone was taking my place. Many of us choristers who sang in those performances in 2007 are now in college or are seniors in high school, and some of us are pining for careers in music!

It also made me feel good to see my mother playing in the orchestra pit, just as she was seven years ago: The lady who drove me into rehearsals, who I waved to in the orchestra pit, and who played in those very performances, continues to make me proud today. I still wave to her at every performance I attend at the Met, from the audience side instead of the stage. Die Meistersinger will always hold a special place in my heart, both as an opera and as a symbol of my family’s love of and devotion to music.