Tag Archives: composer

Stephen Sondheim reimagined for piano by 37 composers

Stephen Sondheim sounded enchanted.

Note by note, pianist Anthony de Mare and three dozen composers had put their own imprints on songs Sondheim wrote over the past half-century, a tribute to the man who redefined Broadway.

“You don’t even have to complete the question,” Sondheim said. “What could be more flattering than to be taken seriously by your peers? And also, some of these are more than peers.”

“Liaisons: Re-Imagining Sondheim From the Piano” was released last month as a three-disc set by ECM. It features 37 original compositions by an All-Star team of composers that includes William Bolcom, Ricky Ian Gordon, Jake Heggie, Wynton Marsalis, Nico Muhly, Steve Reich, Duncan Sheik and Mark-Anthony Turnage.

Listening to more than three hours of luminous interpolations, there’s much familiar — and much peculiar.

“They all said it was tricky in a lot of ways because the songs are already perfect,” de Mare said one afternoon at his Manhattan home.

It’s difficult to discern who feels more honored — the 85-year-old Sondheim or those commissioned to contribute. On a rainy Friday afternoon after arriving in Connecticut for a weekend in the country, Sondheim said he was.

“I just thought, gee, is my stuff interesting enough to occupy these composers’ minds?” Sondheim said.

He may have felt that in reverse. The contributors wondered whether they were up to the task of rethinking the originals.

Heggie, now 54, dedicated his 2010 opera, “Moby-Dick,” to Sondheim. He recalled seeing “Sweeney Todd” for the first time in Los Angeles in the 1980s.

“The axis of my world shifted. I just remember time stopped and I had to re-evaluate everything,” he said. “It literally blew the top of my head off, and that’s when I sort of went very deep into the Sondheim world and became addicted to his shows.”

Winner of eight Tonys, eight Grammys, an Academy Award and a Pulitzer Prize, Sondheim is known for more than his famous shows. He transforms, teaches and tutors. And these composers have listened.

De Mare came up with the idea of the piano project in 2007, brought on Rachel Colbert to produce and through a lawyer sent a letter to Sondheim. Within two weeks, Sondheim wrote back and suggested a chat.

“One of his tenets is less is more, so his notes were always so much said in the most concise way,” de Mare said.

Milton Babbitt, one of Sondheim’s teachers, agreed to participate and chose “I’m Still Here,” Carlotta’s great elegy from “Follies.” But Babbitt died in 2011 at age 94 just after starting his piece and was replaced by his student, Frederic Rzewski.

Some thought about it, had sleepless nights and backed off. De Mare said Adam Guettel advised he was too nervous. Elvis Costello, Sting and Tori Amos didn’t have the time.

Muhly relished the endeavor, labeling Sondheim “an insane genius.”

“My entire high school life was driving around Providence with my friend listening to everything on repeat,” he said.

For him, “Color and Light” from “Sunday in the Park With George” felt comfy and cozy.

“It’s repetitive, it’s obsessive, it’s pointillistic, it’s got everything a neurotic boy could want!” he said.

In some of the songs, such as Sheik’s soaring “Johanna in Space,” the melodic line is clear, the structure only slightly rearranged. Some were more daring, deconstructing Sondheim’s original.

“Sometimes I have trouble following the composer’s mind as to what he took and what he was developing, and then when I listen to it two or three times, it becomes clear,” Sondheim said. “Some of them are very far removed from the original, from the source material and some of them are not, and so I like to follow the track of the composer’s mind and see what it was that grabbed him and what it suggested to him.”

De Mare, 58, wrote the coda himself. Reich’s “Finishing the Hat — 2 Pianos” is the only one for multiple keyboards — de Mare recorded a track he uses when performing it in solo concerts.

David Rakowski’s “The Ladies Who Lunch” in a chromatic critique of Joanne’s bender in “Company.” Fred Hersch’s “No One is Alone” moves, Paul Moravec’s “I Think About You” obsesses, and Heggie’s “I’m Excited. No You’re Not” romps.

This tribute is a sign of Sondheim’s staying power. But Sondheim himself isn’t so sure.

“I never think about that because there’s no way of knowing,” he said. “Think of it, there’s endless instances of all kinds of art that everybody thought in their day were quote immortal and now nobody ever hears. Who’s heard (Antonio) Salieri? Only people who study music — I mean, he does not get performed much. Who hears (Louis) Spohr? The most popular composer of his day. So, I find it foolish to think about that.”

Chopin’s heart exhumed in secret, like a relic

As Frederic Chopin gasped for air on his deathbed in Paris in 1849, he whispered a request that became the stuff of musical legend: Remove my heart after I die and entomb it in Poland. He wanted the symbol of his soul to rest in the native land he pined for from self-imposed exile in France.

Ever since, the composer’s body has rested in peace at the famed Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris — while his heart has endured a wild journey of intrigue and adulation.

First it was sealed in a jar of liquor believed to be cognac. Then it was smuggled into Warsaw past Russian border guards. Once in his hometown, Chopin’s heart passed through the hands of several relatives before being enshrined within a pillar in Holy Cross Church. During World War II, it briefly fell into the clutches of the Nazis. The organ has been exhumed several times, most recently in a secret operation to check whether the tissue remains well preserved.

Chopin’s heart inspires a deep fascination in Poland normally reserved for the relics of saints. For Poles, Chopin’s nostalgic compositions capture the national spirit — and the heart’s fate is seen as intertwined with Poland’s greatest agonies and triumphs over nearly two centuries of foreign occupation, warfare and liberation.

“This is a very emotional object for Poles,” said Michal Witt, a geneticist involved in the inspection. Chopin is “extremely special for the Polish soul.” 

Chopin experts have wanted to carry out genetic testing to establish whether the sickly genius died at 39 of tuberculosis, as is generally believed, or of some other illness. But they remain frustrated. The Polish church and government, the custodians of the heart, have for years refused requests for any invasive tests, partly because of the opposition of a distant living relative of the composer.

This year, however, they finally consented to a superficial inspection after a forensic scientist raised alarm that after so many years the alcohol could have evaporated, leaving the heart to dry up and darken.

Close to midnight on April 14, after the last worshippers had left the Holy Cross Church, 13 people sworn to secrecy gathered in the dark sanctuary.

They included the archbishop of Warsaw, the culture minister, two scientists and other officials. With a feeling of mystery hanging in the air, they worked in total concentration, mostly whispering, as they removed the heart from its resting place and carried out the inspection — taking more than 1,000 photos and adding hot wax to the jar’s seal to prevent evaporation. Warsaw’s archbishop recited prayers over the heart and it was returned to its rightful place. By morning, visitors to the church saw no trace of the exhumation.

“The spirit of this night was very sublime,” said Tadeusz Dobosz, the forensic scientist on the team.

Polish officials kept all details of the inspection secret for five months before going public about it in September, giving no reason for the delay. They are also not releasing photographs of the heart, mindful of ethical considerations surrounding the display of human remains, said Artur Szklener, director of the Fryderyk Chopin Institute in Warsaw, a state body that helps preserve the composer’s legacy.

“We don’t want this to be a media sensation, with photos of the heart in the newspapers,” Szklener said. However, to prove that the heart is in good shape, he showed The Associated Press photographs of the organ, an enlarged white lump submerged in an amber-colored fluid in a crystal jar.

Some Chopin experts are critical of what they consider a lack of transparency.

Steven Lagerberg — the American author of “Chopin’s Heart: The Quest to Identify the Mysterious Illness of the World’s Most Beloved Composer” — believes international experts should have also been involved in the inspection. He said he wishes that the exhumation had involved genetic tests on a small sample of tissue to determine the cause of Chopin’s death.

Though Lagerberg and others believe that Chopin probably died of tuberculosis — the official cause of death — the matter isn’t fully settled. Some scientists suspect cystic fibrosis, a disease still unknown in Chopin’s time, or even some other illnesses.

“The mystery of this man’s illness lingers on — how he could survive for so long with such a chronic illness and how he could write pieces of such extraordinary beauty,” Lagerberg said. “It’s an intellectual puzzle, it’s a medical mystery and it’s an issue of great scientific curiosity.”

Chopin was born near Warsaw in 1810 to a Polish mother and French emigre father. He lived in Warsaw until 1830, when he made his way to Paris — where he chose a life of exile because of the brutal repressions imposed by Imperial Russia after a failed uprising.

Fulfilling Chopin’s deathbed wish, which was also inspired by the composer’s fear of being buried alive, his sister Ludwika smuggled the heart to Warsaw, probably beneath her skirts. After being kept in the family home for several years it was eventually buried in the Baroque Holy Cross Church, in central Warsaw.

It remained there until World War II, when the Nazi occupiers removed it for safekeeping during the Warsaw Uprising of 1944. Even as they slaughtered Poles block-by-block, killing 200,000 people in retribution for the revolt, they took pains to preserve the relic of a composer that the Germans have sometimes claimed as their own, because of the influence great German composers had on him. After the fighting was over, they returned it to the Polish church in a ceremony meant to show their respect for culture.

Bogdan Zdrojewski, the culture minister who took part in the April inspection, defended his refusal to allow invasive testing of the heart.

“We in Poland often say that Chopin died longing for his homeland,” said Zdrojewski, who has since left the culture ministry to be a lawmaker at the European Parliament. “Additional information which could possibly be gained about his death would not be enough of a reason to disturb Chopin’s heart.”

Nonetheless officials have already announced plans for another inspection — 50 years from now.

‘Fidelio’: Beethoven’s struggle, Madison Opera’s reward

Talking to Kathryn Smith, general manager of the Madison Opera, it’s clear how much she loves her medium. And how challenging a medium she’s picked.

“Opera is the greatest of art forms, in my opinion, but it is not an easy one,” says Smith, entering her fourth season with the company and its 55th season overall.

That’s an opinion likely shared by Ludwig van Beethoven, whose Fidelio opens Madison Opera’s season at Overture Center Nov. 21. Fidelio is the only opera the classical music giant ever wrote, the story of a noblewoman named Leonore who works to free her unjustly imprisoned husband.

Smith says the experience of composing the work was neither easy nor pleasant for the German composer. 

Beethoven wrote the opera to fulfill an 1803 commission from opera producer Emanuel Schikaneder, according to Smith. The commission was originally for a score to accompany a libretto penned by Schikaneder titled The Vestal Flame, but Beethoven didn’t like it. Instead, he chose a completely different story: Leonore, a libretto written by Jean-Nicholas Bouilly and previously set to music in both French and Italian. 

Beethoven would live to regret the choice. His work on the re-titled Fidelio proved a constant struggle for the next decade. Smith says the opera ran for only three performances when it premiered in 1805, and a rewritten version that was staged in 1806 was equally disastrous.

Fidelio only escaped becoming a footnote in Beethoven’s larger canon when a theater in Vienna decided to stage the work in 1814. Beethoven did a final rewrite, and the third time proved the charm. The opera was finally a success — although not enough of one to convince Beethoven to try the genre again.

“Beethoven certainly talked about writing other operas after Fidelio, but no part of his experience in writing any of the three iterations was positive,” Smith says. “I imagine opera was not a priority for him.” 

Despite the composer’s struggle, Fidelio contains some of the memorable arias and best symphonic passages in the operatic canon. “Fidelio’s undeniable strength is its choral writing, but the arias are equally stunning, and the overall effect is exhilarating,” Smith says.

Madison Symphony Orchestra maestro and artistic director John DeMain says the opera is threaded with elements that reflect Beethoven’s more famous symphonies, including his Ninth Symphony, and is more dense than other works of the time. “The demands on the singers are greater than with Mozart,’ DeMain says, “and the orchestra becomes richer in harmony and orchestration so typically associated with Beethoven.”

But he says Fidelio clearly shows the influences of those earlier operatic works. “The German operas, as we hear so clearly in Mozart’s operatic works, throw an emphasis on the orchestra,” DeMain says. “This contrasts greatly with the Italian operatic approach, which focused on the vocal lines for the singer with largely simple accompaniments.”

One of the areas that gave Beethoven the most trouble was Fidelio’s overture. There are in fact four different versions, each composed at different times in the work’s evolution. Those performed in conjunction with the failed Fidelios suggest the composer’s symphonic leanings got the better of him, according to Smith.

“I do not believe there was anything particularly wrong with Beethoven‘s first overture from 1805, which we now call ‘Leonore No. 2,’ but he chose to expand it for the second production,” Smith says. “That second overture, which we now call ‘Leonore No. 3,’ is a great symphonic piece, but it lasts 17 minutes, which is way too long for the overture to an opera.”

Beethoven wrote a completely new overture in 1814, which is now the standard opening to the opera.

The Madison Opera has chosen to present Fidelio in the 19th-century setting in which it originated, with sets on loan from the Michigan Opera Theater and costumes procured from the Utah Opera. Director Tara Faircloth, an opera veteran making her Madison Opera debut, will stick to the basics in order to make the composer’s musical and dramatic points stronger.

Fidelio is not an elaborate opera — there are no dancers waltzing through ballrooms,” Smith says. “But the theatrical framework sets off the intensity of the music and the emotional truth of the drama.”

The roles of Leonore and her husband Florestan will be played by rising stars new to the parts, Smith says, but not new to the Madison Opera. Dramatic soprano Alexandra LoBiano, a singer finding national success, sang the romantic lead of Amelia in A Masked Ball in 2012. And last spring, tenor Clay Hilley sang Father Grenville in Dead Man Walking.

A mix of veterans and new singers fleshes out the cast. Kelly Markgraf and Matt Boehler are returning to the Madison Opera as the villainous Don Pizarro and guard Rocco, respectively. David Blalock, Liam Moran and Wisconsin native Alisa Jordheim will fill other lead roles. 

On stage

Madison Opera performs Beethoven’s opera Fidelio at 8 p.m. on Nov. 21, and 2:30 p.m. on Nov. 23 at Madison’s Overture Center for the Arts, 221 State St. Tickets range from $18 to $125. For more information, call 608-258-4141 or visit madisonopera.org.

Written during the Depression, ‘The Cradle Will Rock’ resonates with today’s struggles

In January 1964, openly gay composer Marc Blitzstein was enjoying a much-needed vacation on Martinique when he made a decision that would cost him his life.

Blitzstein, then 58, decided to winter on the Caribbean island in order to escape the strain of several years of persecution by the House Un-American Activities Committee over his one-time Communist Party membership and the pressure to complete several one-act operas.

After a night of heavy drinking, Blitzstein picked up three Portuguese sailors. Traveling between bars, he coaxed one sailor into an alley for a sexual tryst. The other two followed, and the three sailors severely beat and robbed Blitzstein, leaving him with only his shirt and socks.

Police found the crying composer and took him to a local hospital, but physicians failed to diagnose massive internal injuries. Blitzstein bled to death internally the next night.

Although long past being a household name when he died, Blitzstein had a celebrated career as a classical composer and music commentator. He made his musical debut with the Philadelphia Orchestra at age 21 performing one of Franz Liszt’s piano concertos. But it was “The Cradle Will Rock,” Blitzstein’s first and only political “opera,” that forged his legacy. 

The “play with music,” as the composer called it, is the next production of the UW-Madison Department of Theatre and Drama/University Theatre. “The Cradle Will Rock” will run for 11 performances Nov. 16–Dec. 8 at the Mitchell Theatre on the UW campus. 

Reminiscent of Bertolt Brecht’s work, the musical’s tale of corruption, corporate greed and class struggle is as relevant today as it was when it was written in 1937, according to director Norma Saldivar.

“The Cradle will Rock” is an allegory, and there are sentiments in the play that are part of the current political discourse,” says Saldivar, director of the UW-M Department of Theater’s graduate directing program. “The play asks very hard questions and challenges us.” 

The narrative revolves around efforts to unionize workers in the fictitious “Steeltown, U.S.A.” and to combat the influence of the greedy Mr. Mister, a character who owns just about everything in the community. The dialogue is recitative, meaning it is sung throughout the production, and the music blends pop and jazz with more complex styles.

“I think of this as a period piece from a time when the world and our country were quite troubled,” Saldivar says. “(But) iconic characters like Moll and Mr. Mister are representative of types of people who are still present in our society.”

The work was originally created as part of the WPA Theater Project. It nearly didn’t happen, because its themes were considered incendiary and a little too close to home. Produced by John Houseman and directed by Kenosha native Orson Welles, “The Cradle Will Rock” was scheduled to begin previews at the Maxine Elliot Theater on June 16, 1937. 

However, WPA shut down the production and padlocked the theater four days before previews were scheduled. The government agency cited budget cuts as the reason, but many felt the show was censored due to its radical content.

Not to be deterred, Houseman, Wells and Blitzstein rented the Venice Theater for June 16, then walked the entire audience 21 blocks from the Elliott to see the performance. 

The contracted musicians refused to play unless they received their full salaries, something Houseman could no longer afford, so Blitzstein performed the entire score on an upright piano. The Actors Equity Association would not allow the cast to perform on stage without approval of the producer, which was the federal government. So many of them performed from seats in the audience.

The work received critical acclaim, and Houseman eventually overcame the legal hurdles and staged the show as it was originally intended. “The Cradle Will Rock” ran for 108 performances. The experience is credited with leading Welles and Houseman to form the Mercury Theater.

“Our production isn’t attempting to top that amazing experience of perseverance and determination, but we are using it as inspiration,” Saldivar says. “We have a wonderful scenic design that brings the audience closer to the story’s action, and we keep the production in the original period because no time is more rooted in struggle.”

Despite Blitzstein’s sexual orientation, Saldivar sees no gay subtext in the play. But the director says the struggle of the play’s disenfranchised characters to be heard perhaps echoes the composer’s experiences as a gay man.

“For me, the heart of the play are the people who are innocent and have no voice or ability to be heard,” she says. “I think this can apply to any group seeking to be acknowledged.”

The medical needs of Blitzstein clearly were not acknowledged on the night that he died in January 1964. Close friend Leonard Bernstein, who had directed a production of “The Cradle Will Rock” while a student at Harvard, learned of Blitzstein’s death in his dressing room as he was preparing to conduct a performance of Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3, known as the “Eroica.” He dedicated the evening’s performance to his late friend. 

Blitzstein’s personal papers are housed in the State Historical Society of Wisconsin in Madison. For more information, call 608-264-6534.

On stage

“The Cradle Will Rock” runs 11 performances Nov. 16-Dec. 8 at the Mitchell Theatre on the UW campus.