It’s a brave BBC SSO that puts on a programme unlikely to fill seats when the corporation is openly pleading poverty. Yet that’s what it did on Thursday. Besides a quick Beethoven overture, the menu before us was a Mark-Anthony Turnage concerto, an Unsuk Chin novelty piece and a Stravinsky ballet score notable for its steely restraint – an intriguing and challenging concoction, entirely palatable but highly dependant on the persuasiveness of its delivery.
Under chief conductor Ryan Wigglesworth, it was not without charm. Beethoven’s overture Leonore No 2, one of the composer’s multiple attempts to furnish his opera Fidelio with a suitable overture, is perhaps his most thrilling – a bombastic rhetoric within a sea of prophetic expansiveness, pregnant silences exaggerated for effect and a glimpse of the future through music anticipating the naturalism of the later Romantics and the obsessiveness of Berlioz or Bruckner.
The most liberating moment in this performance was the time-stopping offstage solo trumpet, casting a momentary magic spell before the skirmish of the home straight. To that point Wigglesworth’s reading mostly attuned to the music’s impetuosity, even if periodically unnerved by a kind of clipped, scurrying, theatricality.
In the phlegmatic neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s Orpheus, he sourced bewitchment in many of its fluid scenes: the melancholic nostalgia of Orpheus’ Bachian Air de Dance, the muted chorale-like eeriness of the final Apotheosis. The narrative dimension was moodily enticing, neatly tempered, but just short of finding that necessary sheen, the detailed intensity, to offset Stravinsky’s emotional containment
Turnage’s Your Rockaby for soprano saxophone and orchestra, is a Samuel Beckett-inspired concerto written in the early 1990s and shortly afterwards given its Scottish premiere in Glasgow’s Tramway by the SSO, It was performed here by its original soloist, Martin Robertson.
There was no escaping the unctuous queasiness of the jazz idiom that commonly defines Turnage’s music – a seediness lurking throughout, those angry harmonies, sneering glissandi and a busy background percussion combining to create a kaleidoscopic whirlwind. Sometimes gorgeously sleazy, sometimes with ecstatically pungency, Robertson played the protagonist with charismatic obstinacy.
Opening the second half, Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza provided a flip side to the opening Beethoven. Written in 2020 for the latter’s 250th anniversary year, the source material is recognisable – sporadic snatches of Beethoven, each subjected to instant obliteration, as if Chin is firing incendiaries at the originals, releasing instant showers of musical shrapnel. The point was well made in a straightforward, resolute performance.
Polymath David Henry Hwang is the librettist of Osvaldo Golijov’s hit contemporary opera Ainadamar, having its UK staged premiere from Scottish Opera. He talks to KEITH BRUCE.
There are few artists in any field anywhere in the world with quite the diverse, and conspicuously successful, CV of David Henry Hwang. As a creator of original works of his own he is primarily a playwright, but his global fame rests as much on his role as a librettist in the world of opera and musicals.
Scottish audiences were introduced to him in 1989, when his first collaboration with composer Philip Glass, 1000 Airplanes on the Roof, visited Glasgow’s Mayfest in the run up to the city’s profile-changing year as European City of Culture. Fresh from its premier performances in a Vienna aircraft hangar and a Berlin ice-rink, it received mixed reviews, but impressed enough folk to have a local revival by Paragon Ensemble at the Tron Theatre in 2003.
That same year Hwang was working with Argentinian composer Osvaldo Golijov on a commission for the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s Tanglewood summer residency. Created in just a few months, Ainadamar explored the life and work of Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca, as remembered by his muse, Catalan performer Margarita Zirgu.
It was only after considerable reworking, and the input of director Peter Sellars for a Sante Fe Opera production two years later, that Ainadamar found its finished form and became a success.
“One of the differences between the Boston production and the Santa Fe production was learning more about Lorca’s life,” Hwang remembers now. He also credits the composer with being adaptable in a way that he recognised from the world of theatre but encounters less often in opera.
“On Broadway there may be six weeks of previews during which you can make changes, but that is not the opera composer’s way of working. Osvaldo was very comfortable making changes – we are both very flexible people and made an unusual team.”
The score the Argentinian created was, the librettist contends, years ahead of its time.
“We did get on well, but that doesn’t always mean that a composer’s music speaks to me the way Osvaldo’s does. He was breaking boundaries and doing things that hadn’t been done before.
“Osvaldo integrates other voices seamlessly, drawing from different musical styles and using electronic sounds. At that point it was not something that people were generally doing in opera.
“It’s beautiful and fun to listen to. The arias and the trio at the end are gorgeous and you can kinda dance to it! I still enjoy listening to Ainadamar.”
It is also true that the story chimed with a direction that Hwang’s own work had already embarked on in plays and would go on to explore more thoroughly. His background as an Asian American runs through early work F.O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat), his breakthrough play M Butterfly, which deconstructed Puccini and has had a new incarnation as an opera at Santa Fe this year, and more recent Broadway hits Yellow Face and Soft Power, which mined his own life and included characters called “DHH”.
“There is a parallel in that I have brought different cultural voices into my plays. With Osvaldo I got to play in this other sandbox, with Spanish and Moorish influences and duende and Roma voices, and it was a great world to be in.
“When we first met, we started by kicking around different subjects because we had to create the thing really quickly. One of the things that attracted me, when Osvaldo pitched the Lorca story, was that Lorca to some extent predicted his own demise. As artists you sometimes reach into yourself and pull something out and that thing ends up manifesting itself in your life.
“Writers generally write autobiographical characters, they just don’t often name them after themselves. Ultimately you have to do the thing that you are interested in and believe in and let the chips fall where they may. In general I have had more success with things that are personal and idiosyncratic.”
Hwang is speaking particularly of his own work, and he draws a careful distinction between that and his work with composers.
“I work in a lot of genres, and in each there is someone who is the primary artistic voice driving the project forward and the other artists are supporting that vision.
“If I write a play, I am the primary artist, but in opera it is the composer because the work will rise and fall on how the music is perceived and evaluated. That isn’t to say that the libretto isn’t important, because it affects the perception of the music, but fundamentally it is about the music.
“I am also very economical with words, and that is the discipline for the librettist. There have been a couple of times when I have adapted my plays into operas and you have to lose about 50 to 60 per cents of the words in a play to make an opera.”
The new opera of M Butterfly has music by Huang Ruo, but David Henry Hwang’s most regular composing partner has continued to be Glass, including the New York Metropolitan Opera commission The Voyage, The Sound of a Voice, based on two of Hwang’s plays, and most recently Circus Days and Nights, using the poems of Robert Lax, for Malmo Opera.
“Philip is very easy to work with,” says Hwang. “We come up with an idea together, and I’ll write a story outline – although in the case of The Voyage at the Met the outline was Philip’s – and then he assumes that the librettist’s job is to write the words and his is to write the music.”
An impressive list of other composers clearly find Hwang an agreeable collaborator too. They range from Unsuk Chin (2007’s Alice in Wonderland) and Howard Shore (2008’s The Fly, based on the film by David Cronenberg, who made a movie of M Butterfly) to Elton John, Phil Collins and Prince – Hwang co-wrote the least salacious song on the late funk musician’s 1994 album, Come.
He still proudly lists that last surprise on his comprehensive and varied CV.
“I’m pretty eclectic and I don’t really make a distinction between high culture and writing a Disney musical,” he says. “The primary distinction is always whether I am in charge or am I helping someone else realise their vision.
“When I was a kid, the two pop stars that meant the most to me were Prince and David Bowie, so the fact that I got to write a song with Prince and it ended up on an album is just the coolest thing!”
Ainadamar has three performances at Glasgow’s Theatre Royal from Saturday October 29 and three at the Festival Theatre, Edinburgh from November 8. Full details at scottishopera.org.uk
All things German seemed to align in this substantial BBC SSO programme, from the repertoire itself to the efficient presence of David Ackham on the podium and violinist Tobias Feldmann replacing the advertised soloist, Viktoria Eberle, who had to withdraw due to Covid-related issues.
As it happened, Feldmann’s appearance turned out to be the surprise of the show, a performance of Beethoven’s Violin Concerto that not only defied expectations though its adoption of Wolfgang Schneiderhan’s fascinating cadenzas, but by virtue of Feldmann’s soulful and effortless virtuosity. There was a sheen to his playing, bright and fulfilling, that presented this Beethoven warhorse as a vital living organism rather than a museum piece.
The cadenzas helped in refreshing our own thoughts. Beethoven never created any himself for this piece, other than through the piano concerto version he made, the so-called “Sixth Piano Concerto”. And it’s from that source that Schneiderhan – a celebrated Austrian violinist who died some 20 years ago – sculpted these 20th century ones. They are grittier than the more familiar ones, and more challenging in the harmonic directions they pursue, and in the way the timpanist accompanies the soloist in that of the first movement. Spot the motivic link here with the concerto’s opening bars.
Ackham established a cool-headed insistence from the SSO right at the start, out of which the effusive sweetness of Feldmann’s solo line emerged with character and vividness. The interplay was magical, one or two momentary lapses in focus aside, with Beethoven’s concerto freshened up in the process.
Beethoven featured again in the second half, though not directly. Unsuk Chin’s Subito con forza, written last year for the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth, is wonderfully crackpot. The South Korean – Chin lives in Germany – has based her music on stimuli from Beethoven’s Conversation Books, which the composer used to communicate his thoughts as his hearing declined. Her response is impulsive, music that is fitful, often aphoristic. This wasn’t the most incendiary performance, but its contrast to the ensuing Schumann symphony was effective.
Not so effective was Ackham’s gauging of tonal balance in Schumann’s Symphony No 3 “Rhenish”, the soaring strings theme of the opening bars, for instance, subsumed beneath an over-egged welter of brass. This was a frequent issue in the unfolding of the work, yet there was also much to admire in a performance that embraced the sombre mood of the writing, such as the throbbing chorus of trombones in the brief fourth movement, the watery Rhine-like ripples of the scherzo, and the anchored thrill of the finale.
This performance is repeated in Edinburgh, Sun 27 Nov, and will be broadcasted on BBC Radio 3 on Fri 10 Dec, 7.30pm, Full details at www.bbc.co.uk/bbcsso