The Well-Tempered Ear

New Life for “The Great Gatsby”: John Harbison’s “Roaring ‘20s” opera has its European premiere this month in Dresden, Germany

December 5, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

The Ear’s good friend, Sarah Schaffer, who works with composer John Harbison, writes:

Many Madisonians were among those who travelled to New York City in 1999 for the world premiere of John Harbison’s opera, “The Great Gatsby,” which is based on the iconic novel by F. Scott Fitzgerald and which was commissioned by the Metropolitan Opera in celebration of renowned conductor James Levine’s 25th anniversary there. (Below, from the original production, are the late tenor Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby and soprano Dawn Upshaw as Daisy Buchanan.)

Harbison Great Gatsby Gatbsy (Hadley) and Daisy (Upshaw)

The work has since been presented by Lyric Opera of Chicago, in Boston and at Tanglewood by Emmanuel Music, and, in a reduced orchestra chamber version, by Opera Parallele in San Francisco and at the Aspen Music Festival.

A suite from the opera, commissioned by conductor David Zinman, was performed by the Madison Symphony Orchestra under Maestro John DeMain here in 2010.

And of course, John Harbison and his wife, violinist Rose Mary Harbison, are best known in Madison as the artistic directors of the fiercely imaginative annual Token Creek Chamber Music Festival, held in their refurbished barn near Sun Prairie just before Labor Day each summer.

John and Rose Mary Harbison Katrin Talbot

Now, the first European performance of “The Great Gatsby” will take place at Semperoper (below) in Dresden, Germany from this Sunday, Dec. 6, through Dec. 21. It will be presented in English, with German surtitles.

semperoper dresden exter

Semperoper interior

Preceding the first performance, Semperoper is offering a preview event where two film versions of “The Great Gatsby” will be shown: the 1974 version with Robert Redford and Mia Farrow; and the 2013 Baz Luhrman version with Leonardo DiCaprio and Carey Mulligan.

According to Semperoper, “The opera blends modern classical music with jazz and swing to paint a thrilling portrait of a debauched and decadent society, where double standards clash with idealism. European audiences can now enjoy this work for the first time.”

John Harbison directing Gatsby

Wayne Marshall is music director, Keith Warner stage director, with dramaturgy by Stefan Ulrich, and set design by the late John Engels, whose stunning and evocative work was seen last spring in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s production of The Passenger, Mieczyslaw Weinberg’s powerful opera about how the horrors of Auschwitz impact people’s lives in the present.

Wayne Marshall, renowned interpreter of the works of George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein, Duke Ellington and other 20th-century American composers, serves as music director.

In making a new production of The Great Gatsby, Director Keith Warner does not adopt an “update” strategy, often seen in recent European productions.  Instead he goes directly to the period, the American mid-1920s, making its excesses, its excitements, and its cloak of impending doom the essential color of the opera. (below is the party scene.)

Harbison Great Gatsby Party Scene

In the upcoming Dresden production, tenor Peter Lodahl makes his Semperoper debut in the role of Jay Gatsby. For more information, visit: www.peterlodahl.co

Daisy Buchanan will be performed by soprano Maria Bengtsson. For more information, visit: www.mariabengtsson.com

A complete cast list and production personnel can be found at https://www.semperoper.de/en/whats-on/schedule/stid/Gatsby/60545.html

A brief video regarding the launching of Gatsby at Semperopera can be found at:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G7x_dVimgYg

While not without its detractors, over the years and through its many productions Gatsby has garnered significant praise from some of the most respected critics and publications.

With such an iconic and thoroughly American novel, story and music as its origin and soundscape, it will be fascinating to see what kind of reception Gatsby’s eagerly anticipated European premiere will garner across the pond.

Harbison Great Gatsby 2

Europeans, very conversant with the Fitzgerald novel, tend to emphasize the role of class more than American readers.  Warner uses a number of theatrical devices to starkly outline the attitudes and surroundings of the Wilsons, the working-class couple so crucial to conflicts within the story.

The racist and elitist rants of Tom Buchanan, perhaps more comfortably folded into his familiar character by American fans of the book, emerge in stark outline in Warner’s conception.

 


Classical music: Amazon’s new TV comedy “Mozart in the Jungle — Sex, Drugs and Classical Music” depicts the problems of classical musicians in New York City, and gets cheers and jeers from critics for The New York Times and National Public Radio.

January 22, 2015
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By Jacob Stockinger

Bankrupt symphony orchestras and opera companies?

Highly trained but out-of-work classical musicians?

The unfortunate realities of classical music in contemporary American culture have made their way into a fictional comedy.

Fresh off its surprise win in the Golden Globe awards, Amazon Studios is broadcasting an unusual comedy series based on the behind-the-scenes problems and trials of classical musicians in New York City.

It is called “Mozart in the Jungle” – a title that reminds The Ear of the moving scenes in the classic film “Out of Africa” where recordings of works by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart  — including the sublime middle movement of the Clarinet Concerto — are played by multiple Academy Award-winner Meryl Streep and Robert Redford on a phonograph in the midst of the African bush.

Below is a photo by Nicole Rivelli of Amazon Studios that shows Gael García Bernal (right), Bernadette Peters and Malcolm McDowell starring in the classical music comedy series “Mozart in the Jungle.” You can see the trailer, which has a lot of details and bacground and which already has more than 1 million hits, for the new streaming series in a YouTube video at the bottom.

mozart in the jungle

But this urbane comedy take gets mixed marks for its realistic depiction of the difficulties of the classical music scene in New York City, which could easily apply elsewhere.

Here is the critique from NPR of National Public Radio by Anastasia Tsioulcas:

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2015/01/15/377232599/what-we-love-and-hate-about-mozart-in-the-jungle

And here is the review by critic and reviewer Zachary Woolfe for The New York Times:

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/01/19/arts/television/mozart-in-the-jungle-an-amazon-series.html?_r=0

If you have watched “Mozart in the Jungle, let us know what you think.

The Ear wants to hear.


Classical music: Does The Great American Symphony” exist – or even its equivalent in a different form or genre? American conductor JoAnn Falletta takes up the challenging question on NPR with “All Things Considered” host Robert Siegel. Also, the 14th annual Madison Early Music Festival opens tonight with a concert by Piffaro and a lecture on “The Germanies of 1616.”

July 6, 2013
7 Comments

A REMINDER: The 14th Madison Early Music Festival, with the theme “Renaissance Germany,”  opens tonight with a performance by the Renaissance band Piffaro (below) at 7:30 p.m. in Mills Hall. It will be preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a FREE lecture by frequent guest blog contributor John W. Barker on “The Germanies of 1616 and How They Got to Be That Way” in Room L-160 of the Elvehjem Building of the nearby Chazen Museum of Art. For more information, visit: http://continuingstudies.wisc.edu/lsa/memf/index.html

piffaro

By Jacob Stockinger

Back when The Ear was an undergraduate, he had a philosophy professor who claimed in an aesthetics course that no one in the class that was full of ambitious artists and especially would-be writers should worry about writing The Great American Novel.

It had already been written.

The Great American Novel, he said, was “The Great Gatsby” by F. Scott Fitzgerald (below):

f. scott fitzgerald writing

It’s a great choice, though others might disagree and name Mark Twain’s “Huckleberry Finn” or Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick.”

Still, overall, I think the decades have proven him right – which is why Gatsby has been made into several movie versions, including an older one with the actor Robert Redford and a recent one by director Baz Luhrman, and John Harbison’s full-length opera (below, with Dawn Upshaw as Daisy and Jerry Hadley as Jay Gatsby). And maybe a TV drama based on the novel is yet to come.

John Harbison Great Gatsby

But even though that quite of question somehow seems impertinent or irrelevant, it can lead to some memorable discussions and exposure to new music.

So last week, when everyone was looking up American music to play on Independence Day or the fourth of July, the question of The Great American Symphony arose.

And it was discussed on NPR’s “Deceptive Cadence” blog by Tom Huizenga and also on “All Things Considered” by veteran host, the cultured, cultivated and witty Robert Siegel (below top) and American conductor JoAnn Falletta (below bottom), in a photo by Cheryl Gorski), who now leads three different orchestras as music director. (The three are the Buffalo Philharmonic, the Virginia Symphony Orchestra and the Ulster Orchestra in Northern Ireland.) Falletta comes up with some interesting choices of American composers and works — some you have heard of and some you haven’t. (At bottom is a YouTube video of the beautiful slow movement from Samuel Barber’s Symphony No. 1, which I had never heard either live or in a recorded performance.)

robert siegel in npr studio

conducting_joann_falletta

It would be interesting to hear what some other American-born and American-trained maestros and champions of old and new American music – from Leonard Bernstein and Alan Gilbert of the New York Philharmonic to Marin Alsop of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and Michael Tilson Thomas (below) of the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra said or have to say when they took on the same question.

gam_callout

Anyway, here are links to the NPR discussions. I recommend listening to the program and not just reading the transcript.

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/02/197590007/IN-SEARCH-OF-THE-GREAT-AMERICAN-SYMPHONY

http://www.npr.org/blogs/deceptivecadence/2013/07/03/198018168/the-innovative-mosaic-of-american-symphonies

What do you think?

Do you have an orchestral work to nominate as The Great American Symphony or its equivalent?

The Ear wants to hear.


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