Friday, October 9, 2015

The Extremes of October

The middle of October for the KSO brings repertoire that highlights the extremes in scope of musical performance.  Opening tomorrow, (October 9th at 8:00; Sunday, October 11th at 2:30, Tennessee Theatre) the Knoxville Opera Company's first production of the year will be Arrigo Boito's crowning achievement, Mefistofele.  Unless you are an opera aficionado, you've probably never heard of Boito.  His musical output amounts to this opera, another opera entitled Nerone which, in spite of 38 years of work, remained unfinished, and an unpublished symphony in A minor.  This meager oeuvre is augmented by his valuable contributions as a librettist, having written libretti for Ponchielli's La gioconda (under the anagrammatic pseudonym “Tobia Gorrio”), and Verdi's Simon Boccanegra, Otello, and Falstaff.  Boito's collaboration with Verdi led to a very close friendship between the two; Boito was at Verdi's bedside when he died.  Mefistofele is, of course, based on Goethe's Faust, and out of the many operas to be derived from that work, Boito's is considered to be the most faithful to the spirit of the play.

Such dramatic subject matter deserves a sumptuous production.  While the pit is usually the orchestra's domain, scenery will be rising therefrom instead, and the orchestra will be onstage behind a scrim.  The orchestra is not confined solely to the stage, though; brass will be stationed backstage and even in the balcony.  Highlights often excerpted from Mefistofele are the Prologue, the Epilogue, and two tenor arias.  Although the KOC website states correctly that the opera was premiered in 1868, the premiere was considered a failure, owing to dislike of its avant-garde (for its time) musical style, its sprawling length, and the cast's inability to bring off the many complexities of the score.  Revisions over the next dozen years slimmed down the production by one third, and largely due to Wagner's success, the opera-going public had grown to tolerate Boito's quirky musical language.  The final version produced in Milan in 1881 has remained popular to this day, but note that the KOC's performance is a Tennessee premiere!  Check out this YouTube“video,” from the Victrola era, of legendary Russian bass Feodor Chaliapin singing the aria Ave Signore!


On the other end of the spectrum of musical dimension, the Gabe Lefkowitz and Friends series will have its opener at the Knoxville Museum of Art next Wednesday and Thursday at 7:00.  This series has really blossomed in its new, more spacious home at the KMA, and while it is now easier to snare tickets for these, they are going fast.  Pianist Kevin Class and I will join Gabe for the Mendelssohn Piano Trio in D Minor.  Violin giant Fritz Kreisler's Variations on a Theme by Corelli starts the concert, and Beethoven's legendary Kreutzer Sonata closes it.  Although Leo Tolstoy's novella of the same name is morbid and somewhat ribald, (the Russian government censored the novella just days after its publication, and Theodore Roosevelt called Tolstoy a “sexual moral pervert”), Beethoven's 9th violin sonata is nothing but chamber music joy, pure and intimate.  And speaking of pure, intimate joy, here is a vintage recording, an actual video from the 40's, of Jascha Heifetz, cellist Gregor Piatigorsky, and pianist Anton Rubinstein performing the first movement of the Mendelssohn trio.

Kreutzer and Kreisler might understandably be confused for one another, so here is a little explanation.  Rodolphe Kreutzer (1766-1831, pronounced “Kroy-tser”) is one of the “Big 3” founders of the French school of violin playing.  His 42 Etudes is considered to be one of the most important violin pedagogy books ever written. (Jack Benny could often be heard playing Etude #1 in some of his comedy routines).  In spite of the dedication of the sonata to Kreutzer, he never performed it, claiming it was unplayable and incomprehensible.  Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962, pronounced like “Chrysler”) was also a giant of the violin world, although his compositional legacy is a multitude of short, tasteful encore pieces for violin.  Liebeslied (Love's Sorrow) and Liebesfreud (Love's Joy) are a matched pair of such pieces often performed together.  So remember, Kreisler may have been alive during your lifetime, but Kreutzer definitely was not.

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