Lawrence Toppman

Nobody dances to Wolfie

By Lawrence Toppman

I can think of countless composers whose works translate to ballet and modern dance stages, from J.S. Bach – whom Paul Taylor set brilliantly in “Esplanade” and “A Musical Offering” – to Philip Glass, whose “In the Upper Room” inspired Twyla Tharp to make the most ecstatic dance piece I know.

Leo Delibes, Aaron Copland, Peter Tchaikovsky, Igor Stravinsky and Sergei Prokofiev wrote copiously and beautifully for dancers. Guys we don’t think of as ballet composers often took one or more shots: Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, Dmitri Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Claude Debussy, Maurice Ravel.

Yet search Wikipedia for “Ballets to the Music of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart,” and you get exactly two nonentities: “Tributary” and “Twinkliana.” George Balanchine did set “Mozartiana,” but to Tchaikovsky’s Third Orchestral Suite, which bears that nickname. (Tchaikovsky loved WAM.)

I thought about this when I saw an ad for the Charlotte Symphony Orchestra’s “Breaking Classical” concert Friday, in which The Gentlemen of Hip-Hop could be seen frolicking before portraits of Beethoven, Brahms and Mozart. I got excited for a moment, until I realized I couldn’t think of any WAM pieces they’d use.

Why should this be? Mozart wrote 200 dances over three decades, starting when he was 5 and going up to the next-to-last year of his life. He threw in unusual instruments that caught his ear, from the hurdy-gurdy to tuned sleigh bells.

He included dancelike music in quartets and symphonies, wrote ballets hardly anyone recalls (“Les petit riens”) and stuck ballets into some early operas, notably “Idomeneo.” He became a deft ballroom dancer himself, performing and writing minuets, contredanses and German dances with folklike flair. Yet nobody plays these nowadays, and nobody sets Mozart’s greater works in motion.

That can’t be because he’s hard to adapt: His music is rhythmic, precise and provides attractive tunes. It’s in the public domain, so having to pay royalties wouldn’t impede a choreographer.

I’d guess it’s because the music is an entire world in itself, so fully realized that dancemakers have nothing to add. The architecture of Bach suggests patterns for the stage; the dreamy melodies of Chopin make logical underpinnings for emotional ballets; the generic buoyancy of Rossini’s overtures permits an interpreter to go in any direction. But you can’t easily riff off Mozart’s perfection: He doesn’t leave anything to be expressed beyond what he himself has told us.

Making A Masterpiece Out of Mediocrity

By Lawrence Toppman

Joe Ceremsak, my history teacher in my junior year of high school, once defined genius as seeing the potential for success in others’ failures. I was listening to “The Beneficent Dervish” last weekend and realized how true that is. (Another time, he told us to marry people for their brains and personalities, not their looks. Of course, we rolled our eyes: He was old.)

Any composer given a dazzlingly witty or searingly dramatic libretto might turn out an inspired score. But Mozart wrote “The Magic Flute” using the same kind of literary hodgepodge Emanuel Schikaneder had already handed Mozart’s contemporaries over the previous year.

Schikaneder took over the Theater auf der Wieden in a Viennese suburb in May 1789. He not only produced and wrote plays – usually singspiel, a mixture of music and dialogue – but took the baritone leads himself. Paul Wranitzky’s “Oberon” became a hit, so Schikaneder decided to write three more fairy-tale operas over the next 18 months: “The Philosopher’s Stone,” “The Beneficent Dervish” and “The Magic Flute.”

Not to say he followed a formula, but all three heroes are princes accompanied by goofy companions. (Schikaneder took the latter roles.) They go through trials to win the hands of princesses, while their sidekicks end up with earthy partners. A benevolent guardian with mysterious powers guides these princes, warding off evil and handing out protective gifts: a sword and a bird in “Stone,” a pouch, drum and bells in “Dervish,” a flute and bells in “Flute.”

Mozart took a hand in “Stone,” though the bulk of it seems to have come from Johann Baptist Henneberg, Benedikt Schack, Franz Xaver Gerl and Schikaneder himself. I have listened to it and couldn’t find anything identifiably Mozartean, though he’s so versatile it’s hard to pin down a Mozart “style.” After hearing “Dervish,” I see why we’ve never heard any more compositions by the other guys, whose lack of memorable melodies and harmonic invention earned them obscurity.

But look what Mozart did when writing by himself in “Flute!” He terrifies us with the Queen of the Night’s vengeance aria, soothes us with Sarastro’s mellow musings, makes us laugh at Papageno’s antics and endows Tamino and Pamina with nobility and passion. He took the same cornball materials Schikaneder supplied to his contemporaries and elevated them to greatness. That’s a genius at work.

The Mozart of Broadway

By Lawrence Toppman

Born on January 27. Died before his time. Stage career took off when he found an ideal librettist, who helped him transform the way music and drama go together. Yes, we’re talking about…Jerome Kern.

January 27 turns out to be an auspicious birthday for composers. Juan Crisostomo Arriaga, the Spanish Mozart, appeared in 1806, exactly 50 years after Wolfgang. Édouard Lalo, who wrote the beloved Symphonie Espagnole plus fine concertos for piano and cello, came along in 1823. Tigran Mansurian, now 80, remains Armenia’s greatest living composer.

Yet Jerome David Kern, who was born in 1885 and died at 60, changed our world more radically.

Before him, Broadway musicals offered two-dimensional characters, contrived plots, easily resolved dilemmas and songs that didn’t flow out of the action. Shows simply stopped for big numbers, then resumed verbal trivialities until the next musical interlude.

Kern and librettist Oscar Hammerstein II changed that template in 1927 with “Show Boat.” It offered half a dozen tunes that became standards, notably “Ol’ Man River” and “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man of Mine,” but it also dealt with alcoholism, interracial marriage and racism in general, paternal abandonment and other issues. A hard-fought happy ending came to some characters, but not all. (To see it, go to Central Piedmont Community College this month: CPCC Summer Theatre opens its season with “Show Boat.”)

Mozart changed opera by insisting that common people’s troubles mattered as much as those of kings, gods and mythical figures. Kern and Hammerstein had an equal impact on Broadway, showing audiences at the height of the blithe Jazz Age how men’s and women’s lives unravel.

The initial run of “Show Boat” ended in May 1929, five months before the stock market crashed. A decade of The Depression would pass before Americans flocked to realistic musicals again. But Kern and Hammerstein opened the door for “Pal Joey,” “Carmen Jones,” “Oklahoma!” and other tuneful shows that took audiences to darker places. I can’t leave without acknowledging another fine composer born on January 27: Elmore James, who died of a heart attack at 45 in 1963. His slide guitar playing influenced everyone from Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Ray Vaughan and Frank Zappa; “Dust My Broom” and “The Sky is Crying” stand at the apex of electric blues music. But that’s a subject for another day.

Pictured (top): Photograph of Jerome Kern/Wikipedia.

Dispatch from Spoleto: Hypnotic Movements

Pictured (above): The St. Lawrence String Quartet plays Haydn’s “Emperor” quartet during the Bank of America Chamber Music series. Photo by William Struhs.

By Lawrence Toppman

Every fine chamber musician plays with precision, intelligence, energy and taste. But the ones at Spoleto Festival USA also play with love, and that makes all the difference.

Violinist Geoff Nuttall, who programs the Bank of America Chamber Music series with wide-ranging inclinations, places no composer above Franz Josef Haydn. When he and the rest of the St. Lawrence String Quartet perform Haydn’s Emperor Quartet – the one with the Viennese national anthem in the slow movement – they tear into it like kids unwrapping presents on Christmas morning.

They may have been especially eager to rock Dock Street Theatre last weekend, because a PBS film crew came to Charleston to shoot footage of an episode of “Now Hear This.” Nuttall informed the audience that PBS would broadcast this series devoted to classical composers – reportedly the first in 50 years on prime-time TV – starting in September.

Yet the players gave the same intensity to “Closed Universe,” a dense and mysterious piece by composer-in-residence Paul Wiancko, or to a virtuosic, throwaway piccolo concerto by Vivaldi. Their joy shoots over the footlights and jolts the audience each time.

More than ever, this series offers three pleasures. The first – a drawback, if you dislike contemporary music – is that you can almost never attend back-to-back concerts now without encountering living composers. I heard four: Philip Glass, Wiancko, Larry Alan Smith (who wrote the solo “Three Angularities” for his oboist son, James Austin Smith) and Doug Balliett. The latter gave the regional premiere of “Echo and Narcissus,” narrating and playing double-bass in this tale from Ovid’s “Metamorphosis.”

Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) sings a three-song suite by Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel during the 2019 Bank of America Chamber Music series.
Anthony Roth Costanzo (center) sings a three-song suite by Philip Glass and George Frideric Handel during the 2019 Bank of America Chamber Music series. Photo by William Struhs.

The second is the willingness of world-class artists to take occasional minor roles out of a sense of comradeship. Countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo sang vocal interludes in Balliett’s “rap cantata,” none of them more than about 45 seconds. Pianist Inon Barnatan, who’ll open the Charlotte Symphony’s 2019-20 Classical season with Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto, will show up near the end of the festival (June 5-9) to join in a Faure quartet, a Beethoven trio and a 12-person adaptation of the overture to Rossini’s “Barber of Seville.”

The third involves no music at all. Conversations from the stage enlighten and amuse, providing entry points to obscure pieces. The self-taught Wiancko explained that he had written nothing for years, absorbing influences from jazz and blues and punk-rock and “a little bit of Brahms,” and you could hear those as he strummed his cello and tickled a glockenspiel in “Universe.” (Perhaps not the punk-rock.)

These introductions could become a trend. The founder of Compagnie Hervé Koubi told the Gaillard Center crowd about his upbringing in Southern France, his Algerian heritage, his Jewish father and his belief that his street dancers are not employees but his “brothers” from around the Mediterranean and Africa: Burkina Faso, Algeria, Israel, Italy, Spain and other lands.

Compagnie Herve Koubi
Compagnie Herve Koubi performs two nights in the Charleston Gaillard Center, kicking off the 2019 season of Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Nathalie Sternalski.

What he did not say was how to approach “What the Day Owes to the Night.” Like the music that accompanied it – a mashup of Sufi mysticism, J.S. Bach and the Kronos Quartet with vocalist Hamza El Din – Koubi’s 13 dancers, all of them acrobatically gifted and many of them with strong breakdancing chops, seemed to be moving in a quasi-religious trance and trying to induce one in us.

This company occupied the opening weekend spot often reserved for celebrated ballet or modern troupes, which do long mixed programs. Koubi’s lone piece lasted just over an hour, and he exhausted his movement vocabulary after 15 minutes. The ensemble remained onstage the whole time, with small groups emerging briefly from the mass, and “Day” slowed down for only a few moments near the middle.

Koubi seldom varied the cycles of arms reaching to heaven, bodies spinning upside-down or upright in dervish-like whirls, leaps and rolls and falls interrupted briefly by meditative sections. Time seemed to stop – a satisfying thing if you were in sync with Koubi’s repeating rhythms, a painful one if you weren’t.  

Live with Mozart, be buried with Beethoven

By Lawrence Toppman

Readers know I value Mozart’s music above all others. To me, his harmonious, emotional, humorous and endlessly diverse compositions represent humanity at its best.

I do him homage in life, because I can’t pay the ultimate compliment in death: There’s no room for you or me in Vienna’s St. Marx Cemetery, where his remains lie.

On the other hand, we can be buried near Beethoven. And Schubert, Brahms, Schoenberg, Johann Strauss II and Falco, who had a number one pop hit in 1985 with “Rock Me Amadeus.”

I visit cemeteries wherever I go. My favorite remains Père Lachaise in Paris, where Chopin’s grave always bears fresh flowers and sculptor Jacob Epstein created a monument like the prow of a ship for Oscar Wilde. An attendant guarded the resting place of Doors singer Jim Morrison; when I asked why, he said, “Tourists try to do (obscene hand gesture) on top of it.”

Tombstone tours have become quite an attraction: The Association of Significant Cemeteries in Europe has established a cultural map, the European Cemeteries Route. But according to a New York Times article last month, Vienna Central Cemetery offers something unique.

Nariyasu Mishima, a former funeral director from Osaka, Japan, has purchased and renovated a tomb there that can hold 300 urns filled with the ashes of music lovers. The article quotes him as saying, “I saw the graves of Beethoven and Schubert, and felt in my heart how happy I would be if I could have eternal sleep with them.”

For prices ranging from $27,000 to $90,000, you will be interred in the World Music Fan Tomb. You can pay more to have a formal ceremony, presumably with music by your favorite composer. You won’t actually lie next to Beethoven or Brahms, who are in a section of Ehrengräber (graves of honor), but you’ll be within walking distance.

This sounds creepy, perhaps. But isn’t it the logical extension of fandom? We wear shirts with composers’ faces, drink from coffee mugs emblazoned with their visages, put their likenesses on bumper stickers and posters. A Viennese tomb merely multiplies this minor-league idolatry by a thousand (or 27,000).

A last amusing factoid: A monument at Central Cemetery recognizes Mozart’s importance to Vienna’s cultural history, even though he isn’t buried there. But Antonio Salieri is.

Dispatch from Spoleto: A Night at the Theater

Pictured (above): Paul Groves and Melanie Henley Heyn; photo by Leigh Webber.

By Lawrence Toppman

I attend Spoleto Festival USA every year because it’s the kind of place where a beach ball might determine what you’re about to see. That’s what happens on audience-choice nights for performances by Shakespeare’s Globe.

The London-based company has scheduled performances of “The Comedy of Errors,” “Pericles” and “Twelfth Night” throughout the festival, which ends June 9 in Charleston. But it has also set times when the audience decides what to watch.

Eight actors amble onto the stage, playing a loose-knit version of Duke Ellington’s “Caravan” on banjo, accordion, oddly tuned trombone and other instruments. One heaves a beach ball into the crowd, and the third person who touches it has to listen to audience applause and declare which title got the most support.

During Spoleto Festival USA’s 2019 season, Shakespeare’s Globe returns to the Dock Street Theatre with a rotation of Twelfth Night, The Comedy of Errors, and Pericles, as well as Audience Choice performances. Image Courtesy of Shakespeare’s Globe.

Spoleto specializes in the mind-challenging avant-garde, so it was no surprise that my audience (and one the day before) screamed loudest for Shakespeare’s most mindless gagfest, the play about twins separated shortly after birth with twin servants who were parted in infancy, too. Shakespeare beautifully crafted this absurdity, polishing a plot he stole from Plautus, and the Globe octet highlighted every bit of ribald wordplay and knockabout hijinks in “Errors.” (On this showing, the Three Stooges would have been right at home in Elizabethan days.)

The eight had to trim only a few bits of the play to make sense of it with so small a cast. They also brought out the mock-serious side: Characters deal with potential execution, presumed adultery, imprisonment, brief commitment to a madhouse and emotional upheavals of other kinds, and the Globe players lent these sections as much weight as Shakespeare would allow.

By contrast, the theater company 1927 gave audiences a show as light as a balloon and left us floating somewhere in the universe, like the massively obese feline in the first of its many fairy tales. “Roots” carried no message – except, perhaps, that life holds catastrophes for every human being and most animals – but delivered zen-like stories in a weirdly funny way.

Company 1927 in the world premiere of “Roots” at the Emmett Robinson Theatre at College of Charleston during the 2019 season of Spoleto Festival USA. Photo by Leigh Webber.

Two cast members played a dozen or so instruments – my favorites were a musical saw and a warped version of an Asian lute – while two others stood in front of a backdrop or poked their heads through it. (All wore whiteface.) A combination of cartoonish video projection, mime and dialogue gave the impression that characters and locales were moving, and the deadpan seriousness of the macabre stories made them hilarious. At the end, walking out, an audience member said, “It must mean SOMETHING.” Mmmmmm…not necessarily.

The operatic version of “Salome” tried desperately for deeper meaning and, for one hour, succeeded. Directors Patrice Caurier and Moshe Leiser, who set this same opera in Nazi Germany so effectively at Spoleto in 1978, have reimagined it as a story for our time. They have set it atop the roof of a modern penthouse, where the title character goes to escape Herod’s noisy party below.

Melanie Henley Heyn sang beautifully and expressively across her range, playing Salome as a lonely, sheltered girl whose first attraction to a man – unfortunately, woman-hating John the Baptist – goes terribly wrong. But the character doesn’t work if she’s just a victim, someone so brutalized by men that she asks for the Baptist’s head as vengeance against a gender that has abused her sexually and psychologically. (Paul Groves sang Herod, her molester stepdad, with the right fervor, though Erik van Heyningen made a lightweight prophet.)

Pictured (l-r): Edna Prochnik, Paul Groves, and Melanie Henley Heyn in an all-new production of Richard Strauss’s Salome at the Charleston Gaillard Center. Photo by Leigh Webber.

To achieve their aims, the directing team began to ignore stage directions from librettist Hedwig Lachmann (who adapted Oscar Wilde’s play), demanded action that went against the grain of Richard Strauss’ music and actually changed the outcome of the opera. I heard the word “daring” tossed around afterward. It would also be daring to stage a “Hamlet” where the prince jumped up in Act 5 — “The poison didn’t kill me!” — and danced his way onto the throne of Denmark. Would you want to see it?

To learn more about the performances at this year’s festival, visit Spoleto Festival USA.

Mozart without …ummm…cojones

By Lawrence Toppman

I’ve been listening to the motet “Exsultate, jubilate,” which many people (myself included) consider Mozart’s earliest undisputed masterpiece. He wrote it shortly before his 17th birthday in 1773; if there’s a more joyful finale in music history than the final “Alleluia,” I haven’t heard it.

I go back and forth between recordings with a large modern orchestra and a smaller one, the kind that gives HIP renditions on instruments styled after those of the 18th century. (HIP stands for “historically informed performance.”) But neither you nor I will ever hear quite what Mozart heard, because the original soloist was castrato Venanzio Rauzzini.

As far as I know, only one castrato made a solo recording: Alessandro Moreschi, who died at 63 in 1922. He recorded a few discs in 1902 and 1904, when he was in his mid-40s and well past his prime. The one I have (perhaps not the best) makes him sound hooty and labored. Yet he represents a 300-year tradition that began in the mid-1500s and continued (though in decline) until the Papal States in Italy outlawed the procedure in 1870.

Because women weren’t permitted to sing in churches, and boys proved unreliable – partly because voices changed too quickly – the Catholic Church sanctioned the removal of young singers’ testicles before puberty.

As a castrato aged, lack of testosterone prevented his bones from hardening in normal ways. His ribs became unusually long, giving him remarkable lung capacity, and his vocal cords remained more flexible than other singers’. That made castrati invaluable for Baroque-era operas and oratorios, whose heroes always sang long, florid arias. (Today, countertenors or mezzo-sopranos take those parts.)

Naturally, our first reaction is “Ugh.” These kids were seldom asked if they’d like to go through life with bodies different from their peers and without the possibility of fathering children.

On the other hand, great singers such as Farinelli and Senesino earned a lot of money and acclaim and had Europe’s finest composers – Monteverdi, Vivaldi and especially Handel – writing works specifically for them. For instance, Senesino created the title role in “Giulio Cesare,” Handel’s opera about the Roman emperor’s infatuation with Cleopatra.

Art always requires sacrifices, though not usually of body parts. As revolting as this process sounds to us, only the great castrati could tell you whether the things they gave up were worth the rewards.

Pictured: “Choir of Angels” Panel from the Ghent Altarpiece, completed 1432 by Hubert and Jan van Eyck. Located in Saint Bavo Cathedral, Ghent.

Exactly when does genius begin?

By Lawrence Toppman

We don’t think of musicians as plodding tortoises who suddenly turn into rabbits and dash toward immortality. We envision a steady arc toward greatness, with signs of the amazing future present in even the earliest works. But that’s seldom true.

Listen to Mozart’s first half-dozen symphonies, and you hear virtually nothing any competent court composer couldn’t have done. Tiny hints of individuality peep through; he trips you up briefly even in the first symphony, modulating boldly before resorting to conventional form. But he’s a long way from the last half-dozen, which were unrivalled in the world of the 1780s except for Haydn’s Paris symphonies.

It’s fun to compare earlier non-inspirations with mid-career pieces that show more personality and late masterworks, hoping to find a trail from beginning to end. Usually, I can’t. Perhaps you will if you attend “Mostly Mozart May-nia,” the spring concert by Renaissance. The Charlotte singers will perform May 4 at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church, with strings, piano and organ as accompaniment.

The program offers Mozart’s only English anthem, an imitative work composed at 9 while in London; the early choral pieces K. 86 and 89; “Sancta Maria, Mater Dei,” (KV 273), better stuff if not amazing; “Vesperae solennes de confessore” (KV 339), which is breathtaking in spots; the brief but soul-deep “Ave Verum Corpus” (K. 618); and the “Lacrymosa” section, the most beautiful melody from the Requiem (K. 626).  The non-Mozart portion includes Ola Gjeilo’s “Luminous Night of the Soul” for chorus, piano and strings.

We rarely get overview concerts of one composer in Charlotte, because audiences become restless. If we do, like the Charlotte Symphony’s all-Beethoven opener this fall, they combine three great works that don’t show progress from immaturity to consummate skill.

But all composers, even the most precocious, start by copying others. Benjamin Britten found his voice at 21 with his “Simple Symphony,” still much admired, but the works before that – the ballet “Plymouth Town,” the Sinfonietta, Two Portraits – all sound like attractive music by nobody in particular. The same holds true for Mendelssohn, Saint-Saens and others whose early works we enjoy without finding them idiosyncratic. Mozart’s Six Minuets (K. 164) are agreeable, forgettable dances. His “Exsultate, Jubilate” (K. 165) entered the world’s repertoire of beloved choral pieces. Who knows what lightning struck him between these two?