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Gunther Schuller

The Year that Was: Boston Classical Music in 2015

The major news from Boston was the ascendancy of Andris Nelsons, firming up his place as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which included a quickly agreed upon three-year extension of his contract into the 2020-2021 season. This announcement was soon followed by the less happy surprise for Bostonians of Nelsons also accepting an offer from the eminent Leipzig Gewandhaus, the orchestra whose music director was once no less than Felix Mendelssohn, to take on that very position, beginning in the 2017-2018 season, thus dividing the loyalties of the young maestro (who just turned 37), though evidently with the possibility of collaborations between the two orchestras. (Remember when some people were complaining about James Levine dividing his time between the BSO and the Metropolitan Opera?)

David Hansen, Amanda Forsythe, and Nell Snaidas in Boston Early Music Festival’s production of Monteverdi’€™s ”L€’incoronazione di Poppea.” Photo Frank Siteman.

A Singer’s Notes 117: A Lion in Winter at Oldcastle, Tom Sawyer at Dorset, and BEMF’s Monteverdi Trilogy Online

Another outing for this rambling, aging play, this time a good one, expertly cast. The play itself leaves little to the imagination, the acting is all. Nigel Gore’s King Henry was a real tour-de-force. Unflagging energy, powerful and detailed at the same time, one of the best things I have seen him do. Let me say,at the outset,that I admire the whole troupe. They had done this over the top play in the afternoon, came back a few hours later, and gave it all they had. Christine Dekker made the role of Queen Eleanor her own. She gave a super detailed performance that only now and then turned sharp.






Colin Balzer as Ulisse in BEMF's production of Monteverdi's "Il ritorno di Ulisse in patria." Photo Frank Siteman.

Opera Boom: Lots of opera in Boston, but how much was really good?

I need more than two hands to count the number of operas I’ve attended in Boston so far this year. Two productions by the Boston Lyric Opera, our leading company; nine (four fully staged) by our newest company, Odyssey Opera; a brilliant concert version by the BSO of Szymanowski’s disturbing and mesmerizing King Rogerall three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas presented by the Boston Early Music Festival, performed in repertory for possibly the very first time; a rarely produced Mozart masterpiece, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, in a solid and often eloquently sung concert version by Emmanuel Music; the world premiere of Crossing25-year-old Matthew Aucoin’s one-act opera about Whitman in the Civil War, presented by A.R.T.; and the first local production of Hulak-Artemovsky’s Cossack Beyond the Danube, the Ukrainian national opera, by Commonwealth Lyric Theatre (imaginatively staged and magnificently sung). Not to mention several smaller production I couldn’t actually get to—including an adventurous new work, Per Bloland’s Pedr Solis, by the heroic Guerrilla Opera, which I got to watch only on-line, and Boston Opera Collaborative’s Ned Rorem Our Town (music I’m not crazy about, but friends I trust liked the production).

A lot of opera! But how full is the cup?






Marco Bussi (Shepherd), Aaron Sheehan (Orfeo), and Nathan Medley (Shepherd). Photos Kathy Wittman.

Monteverdi’s Vespers of 1610 and L’Orfeo by BEMF at Jordan Hall

The recent biennial weeklong Boston Early Music Festival (June 14-21) drew unusual attention for presenting full stagings of all three of Monteverdi’s surviving operas (OrfeoThe Return of UlyssesThe Coronation of Poppea) plus the Vespers of 1610. This in addition to the Festival’s usual 9 a.m. to midnight concerts of a great variety of music from the Middle Ages to Bach, featuring noted performers from all over the world. Enthusiasm ran high all week and audiences were large, especially for the Monteverdi events.






Claudio Monteverdi, engraving, from "Fiori_poetici," 1644

A Singer’s Notes 110: A Blessed Weekend — Immersion in Monteverdi

Hours and hours of the composer’s music in a 24-hour span. I’ve heard a lot of bad Monteverdi—valiant efforts, not enough skill. The style is fundamentally performer-dependent. In Aston Magna’s Monteverdi concert on Saturday at Simon’s Rock and the Boston Early Music Festival’s performances of the Vespers and Orfeo Saturday evening and Sunday afternoon, we were able to hear these works with first-rate artists who have the right voices and the style under their belts. Half of the time, I was listening to duets by two tenors, a hallmark of Monteverdi’s larger works. These were brilliantly undertaken by Frank Kelley and William Hite in the Aston Magna concert.






The BEMF Chamber Operas 2014: Pergolesi’s La serva padrona and Livietta e Tracollo

Pergolesi’s comic operas sound remarkably modern—which is to say, like Mozart. Recognizably human characters go through recognizable experiences, singing out their feelings very directly, which the music embodies in fluidly changing tempos and moods, stretching of harmony, changes of key and orchestral color. Much is accomplished through musically creative recitative—a half-spoken way of proceeding—as well as through song proper and duets (there are only two singers in each of these operas, though also some designated silent performers, to which this production added a few dancers). It is like Mozart, but sets the procedure for opera ever since, even Verdi’s with their heroic figures, Wagner’s with their gods and goddesses, Berg or Britten with their neurotics. Characters live, feel, and think—and sing—and the music moves quickly and supply and thinks, as it were, with them.






Mireille Asselin and cast. Photo André Costantini.

Charpentier’s La Couronne de Fleurs and La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers by the Boston Early Music Society

Boston Early Music Festival’s presentation of two Marc-Antoine Charpentier chamber operas took us from the playful, elegant, high baroque world of the court of Louis XIV, into something more serious and grave, and then back out again. First we were given most of La Couronne de Fleurs, a Pastoral probably not meant for full staging, where Flore, goddess of spring—well sung, and acted with spirit, by soprano Mireille Asselin—summons up the season and then proposes to shepherds and shepherdesses a contest to praise Louis XIV’s military triumphs, the winner to receive the crown of flowers of the title. After the conventional tributes are made, the production turns to the short opera La Descente d’Orphée aux Enfers, presenting it as a further entry in the poetic contest, though this is done a bit awkwardly, since the piece does not refer to Louis. The Orpheus opera seems not to have been finished by Charpentier, having only two acts instead of the usual three, and stopping with the beginning of Orpheus’s ascent from the Underworld with his lover Euridice rescued from death. We do not get the familiar incident of his prohibited looking back at her and thus permanent loss of her.






Marc-Antoine Charpentier

Boston Early Music Festival to Present a Marc-Antoine Charpentier Double Bill at Jordan Hall, Sat. Nov. 25 and 8 pm and Sun. Nov. 26 at 3 pm

Surely one of the great joys of being a music-lover in the present day is our rediscovery of French Baroque opera—not to mention the Italian and German masterpieces with which the Boston Early Music Festival has regaled its audiences over three decades. The amazing resurrection of Les Arts Florissants’ legendary 1985 production of Lully’s Atys this year brought that home. (They are now available on DVD and Blu-Ray.) BEMF had produced Rameau’s Zoroastre in 1983. After that 18 years passed until they returned to French opera in their 2001 production of Lully’s Thésée, followed by Psyché in 2007. While these four represent the most public strain of opera in Paris, the grand spectacles produced either under royal patronage or at the Opéra, BEMF’s chamber opera series has provided a window on the smaller-scale, more private sort of performances cultivated by Marie de Lorraine, the Duchesse de Guise, with music by her house composer, Marc-Antoine Charpentier.