Back in January, I gave my readers a quick lesson in Italian because so many musical terms are indeed Italian. For some reason, Italy got the jump on everyone and ended up with a monopoly in musical lingo. Totally fine – it all sounds good, Italy has produced some fabulous music and the country itself is gorgeous.
I thought I’d go a little more specific with you today. Here in Columbus, our classical music station, Classical 101, broadcasts a complete opera each and every Saturday afternoon. Likewise we can view opera performances at the Met on the large screen at area movie theaters.
What goes into making an opera? Who makes up the story? Where does it all come from? Well like a good movie, many operas come from existing stories or plays.
Like any large production, there are many people involved in the making of an opera. With movies, we have directors, actors, crew, editors, you name it. With operas, there are composers, instrumental musicians, crew, costume designers, and the actors / singers on stage. All that goes without saying, but who writes it? We know where the music comes from, but who writes the opera’s story itself?
The best way I could describe a story on which an opera is based is to equate it to an adapted screen play.
In this year’s Oscars, John Ridley won the award for best adapted screenplay. He took the book 12 Years a Slave, originally written by Solomon Northrup, and converted it to a screen play for a movie.
He’s the librettist of modern-day movie productions. That’s what a librettist does: converts an already-existing story into a production that can be performed on stage. The composer, then sets all that to music.
In classical music, in particular with operas, one often hears the word “libretto.” Think of this as the script.
li·bret·to - noun \lə-ˈbre-(ˌ)tō\ : the words of an opera or musical
According to Merriam Webster, a libretto is defined as follows.
The text of a work (as an opera) for the musical theater
Pierre Beaumarchais, who, in addition to being a playwright, was also an inventor, spy and arms dealer, wrote a series of plays featuring the character Figaro. Though controversial, these plays were picked up by composers who worked with librettists to turn them into operas for the stage. Two main examples are by Rossini and Mozart.
The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini - libretto by Cesare Sterbini
The Marriage of Figaro by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart - libretto by Lorenzo da Ponte
Rossini and Mozart were great at the music part of it, but needed some help with story itself. That’s where Sterbini and da Ponte came in.
In more modern times, the great American composer, George Gershwin collaborated with his brother, Ira Gershwin, on writing such great songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “Someone to Watch Over Me” and “Embraceable You.” And while George wrote the music, Ira was the librettist for the opera Porgy and Bess – considered one of the most important 20th century operas written.
These operas would not have been possible without the script – made possible by the talented librettists. Sure the composer gets all the credit, but until he has a story, he has nothing to set to music. Just like with modern-day movies, the actors and the directors are those who get noticed and who are therefore well-known.
Every performance – symphony, movie or opera – is a collaborative effort with an incredible amount of work put in both in advance and behind the scenes during a performance. As patrons we typically just see the finished product, but there’s definitely far more to the creative process! Try to think of that the next time you head out to a concert or movie.
Oh my gosh – this was going to be so great – Rossini’s overture to the Barber of Seville, horn concerti by both Leopold and Wolfgang Mozart and a symphony by the father of symphonies himself, Haydn. Like a kid in a candy shop, I was grinning from ear to ear from the moment I sat down in my seat Saturday night at the Southern Theatre until I exited to walk to my car. Except perhaps Billy Joel’s Piano Man, the best music in the world (in this writer’s humble opinion) comes from classical and baroque-era composers and this concert was going to give us at least three major pieces out of the classical era. Awesome!
When talking to the Columbus Symphony Orchestra horn players earlier this fall, I learned that our own Erin Lano had studied under James Sommerville at the New England Conservatory of Music. How fun to now play for her former teacher.
The concert was so enjoyable to me that I was on the edge of my seat – somehow trying to get closer to the source of the great music! Of course, part of that was out of necessity. It’s true that in the Southern Theatre upper balcony, short people (like me) can’t sit back in our seats if we want to be able to see the entire orchestra. I’m 5’3″ with shoes on – a benefit lost once I actually sit. Because of the high back of the seat in front of me, sitting back in my seat cuts off my view of the closest row of musicians, i.e. the concertmaster, the principal cello and the music director, so I lean forward. Totally OK with this – especially for this concert because it was so enjoyable!
Honestly, except for perhaps the performance of Mozart’s Requiem, this is my favorite concert of the year. The CSO packed a lot of really great music into one concert. Wow!
The concert started with a fun rendition of Rossini’s thrice-used overture to the opera, The Barber of Seville – something Mr. Sommerville commented would sound familiar to opera goers everywhere – as well as fans of Bugs Bunny. (upon hearing that the crowd laughed and the retired gentleman sitting next to me commented to his wife “I don’t get it.” I didn’t explain it, but I’m sure his kids and grandkids would have understood the reference!) Something I learned at last year’s concert at which Rossini’s William Tell overture was performed, was that Rossini was lazy. Crazy talented, but lazy just the same. The overture to The Barber of Seville was an overture to a comedic opera, i.e. a funny opera. The overture itself is fun. It’s lively. It’s happy. It’s energetic.
In an act that would make all environmentalists proud, Rossini recycled his overture for two other – dramatic – operas, including one written for the Queen of England called “Elisabetta, regina d’Inghilterra” (Elizabeth, Queen of England). Hers was a serious, dramatic opera, but it had an oddly familiar, happy and bouncy overture to it. Hmm.
Keep that serious nature in mind as you watch this video of Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd!
Next up was a lovely piece by a Ukrainian composer, Valentin Silvestrov. It was the brand new music for me of this concert. Overall, it was pretty mellow in nature, but I especially liked the second movement, the Abendserenade, because of the texture added with the plucking of the strings. It was very pretty, but if it were the last number of the evening, we all would have NEEDED that Surprise in Haydn’s Surprise symphony!
Next up was the start of some really terrific classical music candy for me: Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Horn Concerto No. 3. And with this, I learned how the soloist also conducted the Symphony. He got them started and then they all pretty much kept up by ear. The beauty of being an ensemble of such incredibly talented musicians is that they can do that!
James Sommerville was exciting to watch and a real treat to hear. No wonder CSO’s Associate Principal horn player, Julia Rose, was looking forward to hearing him! When I asked her to which concert she was most looking forward to playing, she told me this one! About Mr. Sommerville, she told me,
“He’s one of the best horn players out there. I’ve been a fan of his since college. An amazing musician!”
She’s definitely right about that! He had such a beautiful, warm sound. His tone was fantastic – I can’t imagine the control needed to maintain the same quality of tone throughout the entire piece whether he was playing piano or forte– both being volumes we could easily hear even way up in the upper balcony.
Time for Dad
After the intermission came time for Mozart’s dad, Leopold Mozart. He composed the second horn concerto of the evening, again beautifully played by Mr. Sommerville. I’d heard a part of this one before – a movement or so, but not the whole thing. It was a lovely piece as well, but a bit more subdued. Bear in mind that that’s due to the composition itself, not the performance.
In the day, the music was primarily written for the patron for whom a composer worked. He didn’t write for himself, he wrote for money and that was usually when someone requested the music. It’s not like they could really go out and sell their music on the open market though some tried and a few probably succeeded. No, music was typically written only at the request of the nobility. In Herr Mozart’s case, he wrote for the Archbishop of Salzburg. The music was nice, pleasant on the ears, predictable, nothing out of the ordinary. Subdued.
During the pre-concert chat, we learned from Christopher Purdy that the French horns of Mozarts’ day were more like something like a formal hunting horn – a brass look, but with one loop and no valves, meaning that notes had to be changed with the embouchure. Try playing a clarinet without any keys! That’s essentially what they did with the classical-era French horns. Crazy, huh?
Last up on Saturday’s program was a great symphony written by the father of the symphony, Franz Josef Haydn himself! Symphony No 94 “Surprise.” Don’t know what the surprise is? You will when you hear the second movement! Back in the day, according to what Mr. Purdy told us, Haydn would compose and conduct music that was well-received all around Europe – England, Austria, etc. During some of his regular performances in London he knew that at a certain point in the music, some people would drift off to sleep, apparently not caring that they’re in a public place. Well – Haydn had a sense of humor and decided to kind of get back at those sleepyheads the best way he knew how: with music.
So in the 2nd movement of his Symphony No 94, he composed a soft, slow, melodic portion of the movement – very soft. Very tranquil and relaxing…just a few strings…immediately followed by a rather sudden – and rather loud – single note by the entire orchestra. WAKE UP!!! I can just picture the old guy in front jumping out of his seat as if he’d just heard what was essentially a sudden musical explosion of sound!
Hee hee! Love it!
Watch the first minute or so. It’s a clever trick, I think!
Come on – you have to chuckle at that. Makes me appreciate and love Haydn all the more!
Ahh – what a great concert. I absolutely loved it. Like I said before – I was like a kid in a candy shop. Give me Baroque or classical and I’m happy as a clam. Give me Mozart and Haydn and all will be well in the world.
Well next up is a great and hugely recognized piece of music: Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. Not sure you know it? Well trust me – you do.
DA DA DA DAAAAAAAAA!
OK – what melody did you just hear in your head when you read that? Ten bucks says it was Beethoven’s 5th! Want to hear it for real? Well – you’re welcome to join me – and six of my friends (including my 11-year old nephew, Ben) on November 16th when we hear that along with Elgar’s violin concerto and a world premier by Stephen Montague. Beethoven’s 5th – it’s comfort music. We all know it. We know what to expect and – for my nephew – it will have more “loud parts!” than last year’s Beethoven Symphony No 6.
Seriously – you can’t go wrong!
- Immortal Amadeus (giocosity.wordpress.com)
In my third Columbus Symphony concert in three weeks, I had the good fortune of sharing the music with a friend of mine from work, Sarah, as well as my young nephew, Ben. Sarah had been to the symphony before, but Ben never had, so I was excited to see how he took it all in.
Ben has been learning the guitar the last couple of years and is into music. In fact this year, he started playing the alto sax. His first question to me when I picked him up on Saturday evening was: Are there going to be any saxophones?
Sorry, kid. No saxes. Columbus Symphony – how about some jazzy tunes next time so my nephew can hear the sax? No? OK – I had to ask.
Last weekend, I went to the theater early to listen to a pre-concert talk by Christopher Purdy of WOSU radio. It was fun – and insightful. He talked about the composers and their music so we could learn some of the back story on what we were about to hear. I threw out the possibility of going again this week and both Sarah and Ben wanted to go.
|Ben – waiting for Christopher Purdy to start the pre-concert talk|
It was nice having a little while to learn about the program and Mr. Purdy always makes it both fun and interesting. He included snippets of music and humorous anecdotes about the composers and times in which they lived. It’s just the right amount of info to keep a 10-year old – already in a food coma from our earlier trip to Five Guys – interested before the concert started.
|The view from our seats – way up in the upper balcony|
Like many of the CSO Masterworks concerts, this week’s concert was themed. Titled “In Nature’s Realm,” it was performed in the acoustically-amazing Southern Theater which is a couple blocks south of the Ohio Theater in downtown Columbus. Included in the program were pieces that all had something to do with nature: Gioachino Rossini’s Overture to William Tell (the reason why most everyone came to hear the orchestra play?); Jean-Féry Rebel’s Les Elémens (Cool baroque-era music!); and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 “Pastoral” in F Major, Opus 68 (not enough loud parts).
Unlike the first two concerts of the season, where Maestro Zeitouni didn’t say a single word to the audience – not even hello, welcome, yo, ça-va,? nothing. – he was rather talkative this time around. He even had slides! (Side note: loved the accent, but I was a French major, so go figure. Ahem.) Before each piece and while the seats were being rearranged, he talked about what they were about to play. It was all really interesting so I hope he does it more often. Sarah and I especially liked the part where he had the orchestra play little passages of the Rossini piece up against similar portions of the Beethoven for comparison.
In honor of Maestro Zeitouni’s slide show, I’m including a nature shot or two of my own. Let me know if you feel inspired.
|Griggs Reservoir Park – Columbus, OH|
The order of the performance was as I listed it above: Rossini, then Rebel, then Beethoven. Had I been given the option, I would have done the complete opposite: Start with the Beethoven, intermission, Rebel and then Rossini – so it ends with a bang. Instead, the exciting piece was first and not-so-exciting piece was how the concert ended. Ben told me that there just weren’t enough loud parts.
Beethoven? Not enough loud parts?
He was right! According to Ben, the Beethoven was his least favorite of the three and I tend to agree with him. It’s a beautiful piece, don’t get me wrong, but it’s not that exciting and it’s pretty long – about 50+ minutes. It deserved its own half, sure, but the ending just, well, happened. It’s as if they just stopped playing without the benefit of a definitive ending. It even took us, the audience, a moment or two to realize it was over. There was no exciting finish.
Had it ended with Rossini, we would have been excited. We would have been jumping up and down in our seats. OK – so maybe not the jumping up and down in our seats part like we did back at IU when we played the William Tell during the second half of all the Hoosier basketball games – but the excited part, definitely! And no – I didn’t yell out I! U! during that part. (I thought it though!) The Rossini was the fun piece of the evening and would have been a fitting end to the concert.
Heck! Maybe we can just put together a completely new concert! Maybe we can pull some Beethoven pieces from Immortal Beloved and throw in some music by Mozart. We’ll title it: Immortal Amadeus! Beethoven’s 5th Symphony, a Mozart piano concerto or two, and some more Beethoven, perhaps his 7th symphony since I really like the Allegretto movement. If Beethoven can make up his own 4-1/2 hour long concert, I’m happy to do the same.
Yet an other opportunity for the folks at the CSO to roll their collectives eyes at my idea. (They still haven’t called me about being a seat filler for the clarinet section. So bummed.)
With regard to this weekend’s concert, I personally liked the middle part the best: Rebel’s Les Elémens. Loved it, actually. Jean-Féry Rebel (more French!) was a court composer for King Louis XIV. He starts off with a funky dissonant chord at the very beginning to make the audience go “hmm,” and then it’s all wonderful, Baroque, musical goodness to the very end. I’ve already downloaded it off iTunes.
Glinka last week – hein – it was OK, but Rebel, I really, really liked. Thank you, CSO, for exposing me to something really terrific!
|Scioto River at Griggs – Columbus, OH|
All in all, it was a wonderful concert, at least according to me, the non-10-year-old. The Beethoven was beautiful. You can’t go wrong with Rossini and I absolutely loved the Rebel.
Ben told us all afterwards that he really liked the concert, so I hope to be able to take him to another one – perhaps in the new year. Maybe I’ll introduce him to some more baroque music in the new year when the CSO puts on a performance of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Still no saxophones, but we can work on that!