How to Dress when Singing Sacred Music

A religious mass or requiem celebrated through music is not a grand opera.

Mozart Requiem-Mass in C minorAround a year ago I began searching for works in this genre because I was dazzled by a DVD-recorded performance of Mozart’s Great Mass in C minor. The entire company of musicians and singers, led by the incomparable John Eliot Gardiner, give an enthralling performance. The sopranos, Barbara Bonney (lyric) and Anne Sofie von Otter (mezzo), captured my attention for a number of reasons beside their physical beauty and superb interpretation of their parts in the Mass. The manner in which they offered this music as soloists was as if they were musical instruments played directly by Mozart, or even God. Their duets with each other, and each with the orchestra, enhanced this perception. They are dressed formally–dark colors and full length gowns. (L-R: Bonney; von Otter).

Bonney-von Otter

The other work on this DVD is Mozart’s Requiem, with the same artists. The soloists in both these works included male tenor and bass singers, but they were garbed as men usually are—in a kind of uniform, and therefore not of interest for this topic. (The C minor mass on this DVD can now be seen on Youtube).

Most recently I have viewed, again and again, the performance of Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater with soloists Sabina Puértolas (Soprano) and Vivica Genaux (Mezzosoprano). (The complete performance here on Youtube).

As with my perceptions while experiencing the Mozart Mass, I felt these women were willing instruments in the performance of this soulful music, not presenting themselves as performers, but presenting the music as God had directed Pergolesi. (If the reader would like to know where I stand with respect to God or religion, please read this).

These women, too, are beautiful and beautifully dressed, appropriate to the occasion and subject.

sopranos Stabat

Now, please observe these cropped pictures of other sopranos singing sacred music (I will not identify these women further, or identify what they are singing, out of respect for their persons):

other sopranos

Each of these women, as with those depicted further above, is physically beautiful and likewise sang a famous work with a renowned conductor and orchestra. There is no disputing they sang professionally and competently. But, unlike my experience with the others, I did not feel either of these women had yielded, or subordinated their persons to the music. Their attire signaled this to me. I did try to ignore their dress and their charms in looking for that subordination, but I didn’t discern it in more than possibly a few places.

I must state a bias here. I do not seek out grand opera except for certain arias sung by certain artists, both female and male. I find that the stories, recitatives, settings, and actions get in the way of the music. My criticisms should be taken in this light. (I have found exceptions in some baroque operas).

I wonder if the reader will tend to agree or disagree with my assertions here; that is, regarding appropriate dress for sacred vocal works.

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“…six feet two inches of Russian gloom.”

Sergei Rachmaninoff

Sergei Rachmaninoff

This is how Igor Stravinsky described Sergei Vasilievich Rachmaninoff, referencing his composition, Isle of the Dead, “regarded as the quintessential expression of the composer’s melancholy.” (Source).

I hasten to add that the concert Vasil and I attended last evening was well worth the time and all other ephemeral and concrete resources. Before the intermission, it was magnificent. So let’s start at the beginning.

The venue was Berwaldhallen. We were seated directly behind and above the orchestra, able easily to see all the instruments except for the brass, timpani and percussion. But, with a little effort which wasn’t distracting to our nearby fellow auditors, we could see these as well. Even better, we could clearly observe every movement and facial expression of the conductor, Juraj Valčuha.

2014-05-09 The orchestra-01

Here was the menu for the evening:

Rachmaninov: Piano Concerto No. 3
Rachmaninov: Isle of the Dead
Ravel: La valse

Juraj Valcuha conductor
Alexei Volodin piano

Immediately upon hearing the familiar opening chords of the piano concerto, I was brought back to the times my mother and I together listened to this quintessentially romantic and, yes, melancholy music. I venture to say that Rachmaninoff  was the last of the great romantic composers, and I emphasize ‘great.’ (Dad preferred the Classical Period, centering around Beethoven).

The pianist was unknown to me, but this is not his fault. I obviously have not been paying attention.

Alexei Volodin was, throughout the performance, a complete master of the extraordinarily difficult keystrokes demanded by the composer/pianist, and of the passion and power I imagine the composer intended to transmit to the audience. A micro-second after the long piece was thunderously completed, the audience erupted in loud huzzahs and applause, not letting Mr. Volodin escape until after five trips between the stage and the wings, no doubt wishing an encore. But after this athletic performance he deserved a rest. He mopped his brow often during the performance, when the composer had allowed the symphony to play by themselves. In any case, anything more would have been an anticlimax.


Which was a problem for the rest of the evening’s offerings.

Vasil sat to my right. The gentleman to my left later remarked that the piano concerto should have been the last item on the menu, not the first. He had considered leaving during the paus.

I don’t remember having heard Rachmaninoff’s Isle of the Dead before this evening. As I remarked to both Vasil and the gentleman to my left after the piece ended, I had now heard it and don’t need to hear it again. I got no argument from either man.

Before the music started, I had an interest to see if Rachmaninoff had employed the Dies irae which he had used in his most popular composition, Rhapsody on a Theme by Paganini, and which Franz Liszt had used as the motif in his Totentanz (Dance of Death).

The “Dies Irae” was used in the Roman liturgy as the sequence for the Requiem Mass for centuries, as evidenced by the important place it holds in musical settings such as those by Mozart and Verdi. It appears in the Roman Missal of 1962, the last edition before the implementation of the revisions from the Second Vatican Council. As such, it is still heard in churches where the Tridentine Latin liturgy is celebrated. It also formed part of the traditional liturgy of All Souls’ Day. (Source)

These are the opening words to the musical chant:

DIes irae

(Day of wrath and doom impending/David’s word with Sibyl’s blending/Heaven and earth in ashes ending!)

In researching the Dies irae for this article I found that Rachmaninoff used it in seven of his compositions:

  • Symphony No. 1, Op. 13
  • Symphony No. 2, Op. 27
  • Symphony No. 3, Op. 44
  • Isle of the Dead, Op. 29
  • The Bells choral symphony, Op. 35
  • Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43
  • Symphonic Dances, Op. 45

Apparently the Dies irae is used throughout Isle of the Dead, but I spotted it only at the very end, and faintly.

It was tedious to listen to this piece in hearing no clear thematic thread, sort of like a mournful piece that Mahler might write if he were Russian. I’ll say no more about the piece, except that the conductor and orchestra were heroic in their performance, some passages demanding the utmost in skill.

Well, now we know that Rachmaninoff had a mournful spirit, but in his expression of it, and in the hopeful and supremely beautiful passages that break through it in his other music, he has given us something unique to be treasured.

Now to La Valse, by Maurice Ravel, a favorite piece for me.

Ravel had for years intended to write some sort of tribute to Johann Strauss II, a Viennese-style waltz on Ravel’s own terms. Strauss, had he been alive, would probably have found the result to be gruesome. Ravel’s waltz is both nostalgic and sinister, rising from nothing but a vague rhythmic pulse, proceeding through several distinct waltz sequences (much more closely linked thematically than in any Strauss waltz), each culminating in an increasingly powerful crescendo and ending in apocalypse. Along the way come disturbing accelerations and ritards (making this particularly unsuitable for ballroom dancing), dynamic extremes, and eerie glissandi, creating an atmosphere of violence, decadence, and decay. In short, it is a portrait of Vienna (and Europe) in the years surrounding World War I. (Source).

It was a treat to sit so near the timpani and percussion for this piece. They had a lot to do, and as loud as they could get, along with the brass section which sat between.   This is a most playful piece, taking the themes traveling in various shapes, colors and intensities through all the orchestra’s instruments, including two harps.

I continue to praise the Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra in these pages, because I can’t help it! This piece put them through the most severe test of their physical strength, their ability to be perfectly synchronized, and to play without my noticing any incorrect or poorly played note (or percussion beat).

La Valse was a good antidote to its deadly predecessor on the program.

As we departed the auditorium, the gentleman to my left and I agreed that the three pieces chosen for this evening’s performance were quite different from each other; we could see no ‘red thread’ or thematic connection running through them.

A curious selection of pieces this evening. Nonetheless , all praise to the conductor, Juraj Valčuha .

2014-05-09 The orchestra-02

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A Frenchman, an American, and a Bohemian Czech walked into a concert hall, and…

… of course were represented by the playing of their music.

Otkrytoe Pismo  Moris Ravel Postcard-1910

(left to right)

I was accompanied by Max who is relatively new to the world of ‘classical’ music, so I was keen to get his fresh view of the music and performance. The concert was at Berwaldhallen in Stockholm.

The three pieces were familiar to me but the conductor and soloist were not.

The conductor, Ilyich Rivas, was born in 1993 and made his debut with the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic in 2013.

The piano soloist, Conrad Tao, was born in 1994 and has played publicly since the age of four. He also plays the violin and is studying composition at the Yale University School of Music.

RAVEL: Tombeau de Couperin

François Couperin (1668 - 1733)

François Couperin (1668 – 1733)

The “Tomb of Couperin” was intended by the composer as an homage to eighteenth-century French music, of which a majority of characteristic forms are in the music of François Couperin. The word “tomb” in the title had a personal significance for Ravel, who dedicated each movement of the suite to a friend who died World War I. The manuscript is dated 1914-1917.

In 1919 Ravel completed his orchestration of four of the movements. Prelude, Forlane, Minuet, and Rigaudon, which we heard this evening. The small orchestra employs two flutes, oboe, English horn, two clarinets, two bassoons, two horns, a trumpet, harp, and the usual strings. (Source).

Although the music is not presented as being programmatic, I nonetheless imagined my own program as the beautiful music washed over me.

  • Prelude: Flowing liquid, including the movements of the conductor
  • Forlane: A promenade in a park, perhaps Paris in the Spring
  • Minuet: A pastorale
  • Rigadoun: A celebration, dancing, playing, entertainments,, a brief romantic interlude, then back to the party
Ilyich Rivas

Ilyich Rivas

Max and I were in a position to fully see the conductor. He is a pleasure to watch, often poised on the tip of one foot or the other, thence to spring to action in taking the a section of the orchestra where it should go. He has a commanding presence, generally, yet in the delicate passages does not dominate but rather flows gracefully. The symphony personnel followed him faithfully, and well.

GERSHWIN: Piano Concerto in F

Gershwin successfully combined the sweep and mood of the typical Russian concerto with the blues, jazz, and rag elements he brought from his successful pop music career. His family had recently immigrated from Russia when he was born in 1898. He had been successful as a pop tune composer and as a Broadway show composer before he wrote this 1925 concerto. The success of his Rhapsody in Blue led Walter Damrosch and the New York Symphony Society to commission this concerto. Gershwin resolved to orchestrate it himself and had to delve into textbooks to learn orchestration and even to discover what the form of a concerto might be. (Source).

Conrad Tao

Conrad Tao

The soloist, Mr. Tao, has the physical presence of a youthful person, but once he addressed the keyboard in the powerful chords and sweeping runs of Gershwin’s music, this was forgotten except to marvel at the size and dexterity of his hands. I saw it as a perfect performance. Half the audience was on their feet, eliciting a short solo encore, in his own arrangement of another piece by Gershwin.

DVORÁK: Scherzo Capriccioso

Antonín Dvorák’s 1883 Scherzo capriccioso for orchestra, Op. 66, is some of the most enjoyable music to have graced the world’s concert halls. This was the time of Dvorák’s first real international fame, and the joy of once and for all escaping poverty can be heard throughout this happy-go-lucky orchestral showpiece. Dvorák wrote the Scherzo capriccioso during April and early May 1883, and it was given its Prague premiere already during the latter month; a much more noteworthy performance came about the following year when Dvorák himself conducted the Scherzo capriccioso during his first visit to London. (Source).

I particularly like the grand, slow waltz that occasionally appeared, and the hint of the river Vltava, also known as the Moldau, that Dvorák’s Czech predecessor, Bedřich Smetana made famous in his music.

Without my prompting, Max said that contrary to his only other symphonic experience, also at Berwaldhallen, he enjoyed every piece of music this evening. So, we will continue to attend together when we can.

Posted in American Classical/Contemporary Music, European Classical/Contemporary Music, Music, Stockholm, Sweden | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Sixty-year Reprise in Grand Style

Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor

Herbert Blomstedt, Conductor

I became more fully aware of conductor Herbert Blomstedt in the middle of his career when he was principal conductor with the San Francisco Symphony, 1985-1995. (I was then working in the San Francisco area). Because of his German-sounding name, and that he had arrived to his San Francisco post after ten years with Staatskapelle Dresden, Germany, I assumed him to be from that country.

Imagine my surprise and potential embarrassment as I discovered, on February 20, 2014, that he was born eighty-eight years ago in the USA to Swedish parents who returned to their home country two years after his birth.

The occasion for this enlightenment was my attendance, accompanied by friend Vasil, at the 60th anniversary of Mr. Blomstedt’s conducting debut with Sweden’s Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, leading the orchestra in exactly the same pieces as before: Bach’s Orchestral Suite in B minor, BWV1067; Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 1; and, Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler. The concert was performed in Stockholm’s Concert Hall (Konserthuset). I’ll relate my impressions of the evening’s performance after I offer more about Mr. Blomstedt.

Herbert Blomstedt has produced over 130 albums with several recording companies, conducting the works of German  and Nordic composers. For instance, he has recorded all the works of Carl Nielsen, and all the symphonies of Beethoven, Schubert, and Sibelius.

He has been principal conductor of these symphony orchestras, from 1954 to 2005, a span of 51 years, with several years of overlapping assignments:

Norrköping Symphony Orchestra
Oslo Philharmonic Orchestra
Danish National Symphony Orchestra
Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Staatskapelle Dresden
San Francisco Symphony
North German Radio Symphony
Leipzig Gewandhaus

Mr. Blomstedt retired from the leadership of symphony orchestras in 2005, at the age of 81, but continues as guest conductor for many well-known orchestras.

Now to the program.

Bach’s Orchestral Suite in B minor, BWV1067 features the flute which was played here by Andreas Alin, the designated solo flutist for the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic and also the Stockholm Sinfonietta. The piece is a series of dances, after the overture:

Andreas Alin, Flutist

Andreas Alin, Flutist

4.Bourrée 1 and 2
5.Polonaise, double

It is  a familiar piece which I always enjoy hearing but, in this instance, through a defect in acoustics or the placement of several musicians between me and the soloist (Vasil and I sat at the extreme left in front of the orchestra), I was unable to hear the flute clearly at all times. I feel certain this was not the fault of the soloist.

The ensemble for this suite by Bach, in addition to the flute, were four different strings and harpsichord.

As the harpsichord was pulled away from the stage after the performance, Vasil and I wondered how they were going to get a grand piano on the stage without a great deal of moving things around. Indeed, stage hands began clearing a space in the front center of the stage, barely in time as a portion of the stage was slowly elevated, hydraulically, to bring forth a grand piano.

The piece of the evening, Beethoven’s first piano concerto, was presented by Garrick Ohlsson, a New York-born pianist with an Italian mother and a Swedish father. Please read more about him at the link under his name, above.

Garrick Ohlsson, Pianist

Garrick Ohlsson, Pianist

The piece has three movements: 1.Allegro con brio; 2.Largo; 3.Rondo; Allegro scherzando. Mr. Ohlsson’s skill at the piano is completely authoritative. I was impressed by the delicacy with which he played Beethoven, without detracting from the power of the composer’s composition. I read, afterward, that Mr. Ohlsson was, early in his career, a leading interpreter of Chopin which, in my view, would account for this delicacy of approach. He played without  a score, and was completely at ease in front of the keyboard while waiting for the conductor to cue his next entrance to the music. The cadenza of second movement was astounding, both in composition and performance. I especially like that Beethoven uses jazz-like syncopation in the third movement, with a tune that sounds South American in origin. I think it’s a convergence, however, not an influence.

The audience gave Mr. Ohlsson long and loud applause.

There was a paus, after which Vasil and I returned to the third row to experience Hindemith’s Mathis der Maler (Mathias the painter). I am not particularly fond of Hindemith’s music, but I was prepared to listen with open mind to this most-played piece by the composer, under the baton of a man who has conducted it many times. Here is from the few notes I made while listening:

Square in shape / strenuous / hint of Prokofiev / program music, but what’s the program? / I’ve lost the sense of its shape / enjoy the challenging dissonance / music for a Bela Lugosi film?

Vasil and I agreed that Hindemith was not our cup of tea. Nonetheless, we were impressed with the orchestra’s skill in performing this most difficult piece.

The reader may have noticed that through my recitation of the pieces played I haven’t mentioned the star of the evening, Mr. Herbert Blomstedt. I’m saving the best for last.

As I watched this tall, elegant, physically fit man of 88 years perform vigorously on the conductor’s podium, without sheet music in front of him, I perceived the music he led the orchestra in playing was embedded in the very essence of his being. Here he was, 60 years after having conducted these very pieces, with the same orchestra (with new players, undoubtedly) in the same city, confidently, naturally, bringing forth through the movements of his body and his baton the sounds so familiar to him. It was magical.

The audience, to be sure, was thrilled to be part of this great man’s triumphal return, refusing to allow him to retire from the stage until all were exhausted from the applause and bows. An official of the orchestra or of the theater made a speech (in Swedish, which I don’t understand well) and gave Mr. Blomstedt a box containing an award of some nature. Mr. Blomstedt was gracious in receiving this, as well as in receiving the accolades of the audience and orchestra members.

It was a grand evening.

Mr. Blomstedt receiving accolades and praising the musicians of the orchestra

Mr. Blomstedt receiving accolades and praising the musicians of the orchestra

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