Sunday, July 18, 2010

Remembering Sir Charles Mackerras

I am packing up half of my belongings this weekend to move to an apartment in downtown Roanoke. Amy and I will keep a place in Norfolk/Va Beach as well. Deciding which opera scores stay in Hampton Roads and which ones go to Roanoke is only easy when we have two copies of the same edition.

Packing up scores reminds me of one of the exceptions that proves the rule about valuing possessions and material things. When we moved from Indiana to Virginia in the summer of 2008, three boxes of ceramic figurines that weren't ours arrived with our belongings. Three boxes of my scores and art monographs never made it. We trust the figurines made it to their rightful owners after we made inquiries. I have no idea where my books & music landed. Two of those scores were of Janacek's operas, Jenufa and Katya Kabanova.

They both carried inscriptions from Elisabeth Söderström and Sir Charles Mackerras, with whom I had the pleasure and privilege of working in 2002 at the Britten-Pears Young Artist Programme (then known as the Britten-Pears School for Advanced Musical Study).

To use the cliche "pleasure and privilege" baldly understates the truth of that statement. Sir Charles, who died July 14 (aged 84), was a paradigm of a Maestro. The masters I have been lucky enough to encounter thus far in my life have at least two traits in common: an unswerving commitment to the art they champion and uncompromising standards for its execution (performance). Joseph Flummerfelt, Kurt Masur, James Levine, Lorin Maazel, and the late Richard Hickox are all eminent examples. Among others, one closer to home is Steven White.

The obituaries of Mackerras I have read online--from Musical America to British papers like the Guardian, Observer and Financial Times--have stressed the wealth and breadth of his accomplishments. In addition to championing Mozart and his operas (and 18th century performance practice), Mackerras almost single-handedly brought Czech opera to western Europe and the US. His pioneering leadership of the operas of Dvorak, and in particular, Leos Janacek changed the landscape of our understanding of this rich field of the repertoire.

He was also a great teacher, embodying that balance between intense commitment to the material and exacting standards where preparation and performance are concerned. In this respect, "old school" is never out of style.

Janacek's operas were the subject of the intensive two-week workshop (& concert) in my above-mentioned experience with Sir Charles and Ms Söderström (who died last fall, aged 82). To say they were the best duo on the planet for such a project is another understatement. They earned multiple awards for their landmark recordings of Janacek operas in the 1970's, which remain benchmarks.

Listening to those recordings, one is struck by that rare experience of revelation which inspires the questions "why haven't I heard this before?" and "why isn't this piece done more often?"

Jenufa and Katya Kabanova (along with The Cunning Little Vixen) are the most performed of Janacek's operas. Just this past season, the Met presented their first production of his last opera, From the House of the Dead. Imagine waiting 80 years to hear Turandot or Capriccio. Unfathomable.

Janacek was a contemporary of Puccini and Strauss, and one hears this in his music. Writing about Puccini in an earlier post, I compared the conversational style of La Fanciulla del West to Janacek. As these composers progressed and embraced (the less alienating) aspects of modern music (like impressionism) the lines demarcating the set pieces of 19th century opera disappeared. Verdi decried Puccini's "symphonic style," which was indebted to Wagner (and the sensuous harmonies of French opera that shaped Debussy and musical impressionism--but that's another essay). We can have Verdi, Puccini AND Wagner (and Strauss & Janacek, for that matter).

Like Strauss, Janacek's scores are rich with orchestral color. Melody abounds, but it is also shaped by speech rhythms. The result is an eclectic style that blends elements of folk music with late-romantic lushness, refracted through the lens of early 20th century modernism. Katya Kabanova is my personal favorite. Katya's first act monologue and the love duet between Katya and Boris are among the most ravishing stretches of music in the repertoire. The same could be said for the final scene of Jenufa, another great entry point for opera lovers uninitiated in Janacek's art.

Jenufa was written around the time of Butterfly, and Katya is a contemporary of Fanciulla (and Rosenkavalier). Turandot has been a staple since Puccini left it unfinished at his death in 1924. Janacek completed From the House of the Dead just before his death in 1928.

It took 81 years to reach the Met, in a production originally conducted by Pierre Boulez, one of the lions of modernism famous for scorning the "antiquated" emotionalism of the generation of pre-atonal composers like Mahler and Strauss (and Puccini & Janacek). One of the reasons Janacek is not more of an operatic staple with regional companies has to do with the chicken-and-egg dichotomy hinted at above. The "why haven't I heard it" and "why isn't it done more" questions are closely related. One of many ironies in our field is that what is too reactionary (Janacek) for one camp (Boulez) is too progressive for another. Ignorance is what the opposing sides of this coin have in common.

It has taken visionaries like Mackerras to champion the Janacek's of the world where the Puccini's and Strauss's have needed none. There's room enough at this table for everyone. Thank you, Sir Charles.

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