Program Notes: A letter from Anthony Roth Costanzo

Posted on by

 

Program Notes: A letter from Anthony Roth Costanzo

As I enter my 20th year of professional performance, I have been reflecting on the most resonant musical moments throughout my development as a singer. From my beginning as a Broadway baby to my now daily dances with Handel, I have realized that there is a lot of music in between those two poles which has shaped me. This program is a collection of personal parcels, each one having a distinct and meaningful place in my trajectory.

As an eager 16 year old planning my first-ever recital, I was immediately taken by the beauty and depth of Henri Duparc’s songs and was simultaneously fascinated by his systematic destruction of his entire oeuvre, apart from a small handful of remaining works. I have chosen to start this recital with the same three songs that began my first recital as a budding countertenor.

Before I could even fathom the idea of vocal recital, at 13, I was asked to do my first role in opera: Miles in Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. After years of musical theater, I found the challenge and the emotional complexity of Britten’s work exhilarating. As I entered into Britten’s universe, I discovered classical music’s ability to plumb the depths of human experience with uncanny expression, and it was this discovery that sent me down the road to becoming a classical singer. Britten not only holds a special place in my artistic journey, but also in the history of countertenors as he is the first composer ever to have written an operatic role specifically for countertenor as opposed to castrato — that of Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. His transcriptions of old English folk songs showcase his agility in wafting between subtly ironic, flat out silly, and poignant.

One thing I’ve learned about being half southern Italian and half Hungarian-Jewish is that while I may know how to eat well, I have a lot of guilt with which to contend. Luckily, both of my parents are psychologists, so I was able to focus mainly on the food. I realized recently that apart from the occasional chicken paprikash, the only connection to my Hungarian heritage I can remember is a miniature bust of Liszt that made its way onto the dresser in my childhood bedroom. When I learned about Liszt’s lore in college, his emotionally virtuosic playing and its palpable effects, I was intrigued. Since then I’ve been trying to put together a group of his songs that felt natural to me as a performer, and it wasn’t until now that I concocted this felicitous combination of his German settings. Connected, but not entirely the same as this Hungarian sense of romanticism, is the characteristically Italian state of impetuosity. Though none of the three Italian arias I am presenting was actually written by an Italian, they were all written for and performed by Italian castrati. These physically altered superstars of their era gave the art of opera wings, and along the way generated a body of work which never ceases to entrance me. Both Mozart and Handel offer endless opportunities to dig into characters with harmonic shifts, textual delineation and of course ornamentation carefully cooked-up by the singers themselves. These three arias represent the foundation of my work as a singer: executing the highest of technical demands while simultaneously rendering emotional arcs tangible.

At six years old I was no good at reading sheet music. My unusually creative piano teacher, Pei-Fen Liu, thought that perhaps instead of trying to play the notes, I’d have an easier time taking my fingers out of the equation. So I began to sing, and though I’m not sure my sight-reading improved, I quickly realized how much I enjoyed singing. After humming notes and singing solfège scales, Pei-Fen decided it was time for the next step. She pulled out a book of Gershwin songs, and away we went. I became so enthusiastic about Gershwin that I used to sit in my room and listen to any recordings I could find. When I discovered Ella Fitzgerald, I wanted so badly to understand how she wove her magic that I remember spending hours trying to copy down each syllable of scat that she added to the tunes she was singing. By the time I was eight, I told my parents that I was ready to give this a go in public. Wonderfully supportive as they were, they helped me to find an audition at a community theater. Filled with anticipation, and a joy of music, I walked into the audition room with a Gershwin tune prepared. Little did I know that I was about to embark upon a life of music and a craft which challenges and moves me every day. As I opened my mouth to sing the first few bars of “Summertime” that day, I couldn’t have imagined that it would close a recital like this one with the VRS.

-Anthony Roth Costanzo

Program Notes: Anthony Roth Costanzo

Posted on by

 

PROGRAM NOTES: ANTHONY ROTH COSTANZO

 

Henri Duparc was, with Berlioz and Fauré, among the pioneers of la mélodie (the French art song, as distinguished from folk song). His career was remarkable in that although he lived for 85 years, his reputation rests on barely more than a dozen songs. “Chanson triste” was Duparc’s first song, written at the age of twenty and published with four others as his Op. 2 in 1868.  It displays the quintessentially Gallic qualities of elegance, charm, sensitivity and polish. It also engages our imagination in a melancholic, yearning clair de lune setting of a text by the Symbolist poet Jean Lahor. “L’Invitation au voyage” takes for its text the famous Baudelaire poem of the same title. The poet’s dream world steeped in drugs, the atmosphere suffused with orientalism, and the imaginary voyage of the mind, were captured to perfection by Duparc in this masterpiece of ambiguous harmonies, unstable rhythms, sensuous imagery and vague meaning. In “Phidylé” Wagnerian chromaticism is much in evidence, as is the continuous development of melodic cells, the atmosphere of vague longing, an almost Tristanesque sensuality and rise to an ecstatic climax.

Few composers have captured in music the spirit and essence of their homeland with the vividness and poignancy as has Benjamin Britten. One of the many manifestations of Britten’s “English-ness” is found in settings of his country’s folksongs. “The Ploughboy,” in Britten’s arrangement of a tune by the English composer William Shield (1748-1829), takes a humorous, even cynical view of social advancement in the late eighteenth century. The text of “The ash grove” is a reflection on meetings with a deceased beloved, set to a well-known Welsh tune. “The foggy, foggy dew” exists in numerous versions, and has acquired something of a reputation for its bawdy text. Burl Ives was jailed for singing it in public in Utah, and the BBC had restrictions on broadcasting it. And just what is the “foggy, foggy dew”? That’s open to interpretation!

The enormously prolific and versatile Franz Liszt, though best known for his orchestral and piano music, also wrote more than eighty songs in six languages. Freedom of form and advanced harmony are commonly found in these songs, many of which he revised two, three or even four times, sometimes turning them into keyboard transcriptions as well. Although Liszt is usually billed as a Hungarian, he never spoke this language well, and the language he set most often in songs was German.

Liszt’s original setting of Heine’s poem “Im Rhein, im schönen Strome” (In the Rhine, the beauteous stream) depicted a river bursting with energy. The revised, commonly heard version is more subtle, portraying a gently flowing body of water. “In Liebeslust” (In love’s delight), set to a poem by Liszt’s close friend Hoffmann von Fallersleben, is a song so taken with love that the immortal words “Ich liebe dich” are emphatically sung nine times in three groups in three different manners. “Über allen Gipfeln ist Ruh” (Peace reigns on every peak) is a setting of one of Goethe’s most famous poems (“Wandrers Nachtlied II”), one that has inspired dozens of composers, including Schubert and Schumann. Liszt’s song presents a picture of almost unearthly stillness. The lovely song about religious love, “Hohe Liebe” (Exalted love), to a text by Ludwig Uhland, also exists in a more extended version as the first of the three Liebesträume for solo piano. “Ihr Glocken von Marling” (Ye Bells of Marling) is a late song (1874). The bells of Emil Kuh’s poem are evoked in impressionistic, almost mystical terms in Liszt’s gently pulsing music.

Just after the fourteen-year-old Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart arrived in Milan in February of 1770, he was commissioned to write his first full-length opera seria, which was premiered that December. Mitridate, rè di Ponto was a great success, receiving 22 consecutive performances, but then dropped from sight until it was revived in Salzburg in 1971.The plot focuses on the love triangle between Aspasia, betrothed to King Mithradates of Pontus (a region on the Black Sea, now part of Turkey) and his two sons Sifare and Farnace. In his first aria of the opera, Farnace resolves to back the Roman contingent in the city and to challenge his father’s political position. It is a thrilling aria of substantial dimensions (over seven minutes in length), shot through with fortitude and steely determination.

Georg Friedrich Handel composed an enormous amount of music, including more than forty operas. With each of these productions containing an average of 25 arias, simple arithmetic gives us the astounding figure of well over 1,000 arias just for this body of music alone. Giulio Cesare (1724) was enormously successful and, along with Rinaldo, remains Handel’s most frequently performed opera today. The story takes place in Egypt in 48 B.C. at the time of the Roman campaign led by Caesar. By the beginning of Act III, Caesar is presumed drowned, but miraculously he survives. Drawing himself up on the shore, he bemoans his fate, the disappearance of his troops and the loss of his beloved Cleopatra in an aria of touching simplicity. The plot of Flavio (1723) deftly combines elements of the comic and the tragic. Guido’s Act II rage aria, “Rompo i lacci”, written for the famed castrato Senesino, races along at a breathless pace and features a number of melismas, two of which go on for an extraordinary 49 notes (a melisma is a string of notes sung to a single syllable). The plot of Amadigi (1715) involves a complicated love quadrangle. The men Amadigi and Dardano are both in love with Oriana (who loves only Amadigi), while the sorceress Melissa is also in love with Amadigi. In Act II, Dardano (a castrato role), despairing of ever winning Melissa for himself, sings his magnificent aria “Pena tiranna” to the sarabande rhythm (long-long, [breath], short long-long, [breath], etc.)

It is surely symbolic that George Gershwin was born on one shore of America (Brooklyn) and died on the other (Hollywood), for his music has been played, embraced, loved and cherished as has that of virtually no other composer the United States has ever produced. His output of over 500 songs, many of them written to lyrics by his older brother Ira, nearly equals Schubert’s in size. “I Got Rhythm” and “Sam and Delilah” both come from the musical comedy Girl Crazy (1930), whose story takes place in America’s Wild West. What made audiences crazy about Girl Crazy was a young newcomer in the cast, Ethel Merman, an actress “whose personality swept through the theater like a tropical cyclone,” as one critic put it. These two songs belonged to her. “Embraceable You” is one of Gershwin’s most irresistibly seductive songs, but probably the one that more people know than any other is “Summertime”, the languorous lullaby Clara sings to her infant shortly after the curtain goes up on the opera Porgy and Bess (1935).

 

Program notes by Robert Markow, 2012.

Stephen Says (Friday, November 23)

Posted on by

Stephen Says: “There’s an app for that too!”

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here.

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Wednesday November 21)

Posted on by

Stephen Says: “Insanity and insomnia, the brightness of a nighttime city, the mysticism and the magic.” (Program notes on Stephen’s original composition Piano sonata no. 2 (notturno luminoso), which he will play this Sunday at the Chan Centre.)

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Monday November 19)

Posted on by

Stephen Says: Ballet: life and breath and sheer exultation.

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Friday November 16)

Posted on by

Stephen Says: “My ear trembles at the sound of a beautiful chord. It’s precisely the bending of meaning and familiarity which excites me – in words and in music.”

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Program Notes: Stephen Hough

Posted on by

 

PROGRAM NOTES: STEPHEN HOUGH

 

Frédéric Chopin: Nocturnes, Op. 27

The nocturnes are Chopin’s most intimate and personal utterances. Some are wistful, some reflective, some melancholy, some faintly troubled and some serenely joyful. All are sensuously beautiful, suffused with elegance and deeply poetic impulses. During Chopin’s lifetime they were his most popular pieces. Twenty-one survive, the first written when he was seventeen, the last three years before his death. As the title implies, they are suggestive – faintly or strongly as the case may be – of some aspect of dusk, evening, twilight or the dark night and associative emotions.

The two contrasting nocturnes of Op. 27 are enharmonically related (C sharp minor and D flat major). As biographer Jim Samson points out, their accompaniment patterns are wider in range than the composer’s earlier broken-chord patterns. No. 1– dark, troubled and somber – is clearly in ternary form (ABA), with a central episode that speaks of triumph and grandeur only to lapse back to the morose opening material. No. 2 has been called the most voluptuous of the nocturnes. It, too, offers a melody of great beauty, but rather than evoking an aria, it resembles more an operatic duet. More often than not the theme is presented in those parallel thirds or sixths so beloved of the Italian opera composers, and even includes examples of fioriture (decorative filigree).

 

Johannes Brahms: Piano sonata no. 3 in F minor, Op. 5

“Beaten out of steel by cyclopean hands,” “Promethean strength of aspiration,” and “heaven-storming” are just some of the descriptions called forth by the virile outburst that opens Brahms’ longest work for solo piano, composed in 1853 when he was just twenty. Boldness, youthful fire and sonorities of orchestral proportions alternate with intimate meditations, tender dialogues and ardent lyricism in a grand edifice of unassailable musical logic. Brahms proceeds to fashion the sonata-form opening movement with the utmost economy of means, transforming and sculpting the highly malleable initial fragment into an astonishing world of shapes, characters and moods.

Aside from its grandly spacious design, the sonata boasts other special features. Its second movement describes in tone a poetic vision that is inscribed at the top of the page: “The twilight falls, the moonlight gleams, two hearts in love unite, embraced in rapture.” The Scherzo returns us to the bold, assertive world of the first movement. Wide leaps, thundering octaves and the full range of the keyboard give it an exuberant, even epic quality. The Intermezzo represents still another novel element in the sonata. Subtitled Rückblick (backward glance), it serves both as a point of symmetry in the sonata’s overall design and as a programmatic reinterpretation of an earlier movement (the second). The air of heroic struggle resumes in the Finale, which follows without a break. In free rondo form, Brahms takes us on a vast musical journey, incorporating darkly mysterious murmurings, seething turbulence, dramatic outbursts and a chorale-like message of hope, to a triumphant conclusion.

 

Stephen Hough: Piano sonata no. 2

The subtitle for my 2nd Piano sonata, ‘notturno luminoso’, suggests many images: the reflection of the moon on a calm lake perhaps, or stars across a restful sky.  But this piece is about a different kind of night and a different kind of light: the brightness of a brash city in the hours of darkness; the loneliness of pre-morning; sleeplessness and the dull glow of the alarm clock’s unmoving hours; the irrational fears or the disturbing dreams which are only darkened by the harsh glare of a suspended, dusty light bulb.  But also suggested are nighttime’s heightened emotions: its mysticism, its magic, its imaginative possibilities.

The Sonata’s form is ABA and there are three musical ideas: one based on sharps (brightness), one based on flats (darkness), and one based on naturals (white notes) representing a kind of blank irrationality.  The piece opens clangorously, its bold, assertive theme – sharps piled upon sharps – separated by small cadenzas.  Yearning and hesitating to reach a cadence it finally stumbles into the B section where all accidentals are suddenly bleached away in a whiteout.  Extremes of pitch and dynamics splatter sound across the keyboard until an arpeggio figure in the bass gathers rhythmic momentum and leads to the ‘flat’ musical idea, jarring in its romantic juxtaposition to what has gone before.

This whole B section is made up of a collision, a tossing and turning, between the two tonalities of flats and naturals, interrupting each other with impatience until the whiteout material spins up into the stratosphere, a whirlwind in the upper octaves of the piano.  Under this blizzard we hear the theme from the beginning of the piece, firstly in purest, brilliant C major in the treble, then, after it subsides to pianissimo, in a snarl of dissonance in the extreme bass of the instrument.  The music stops … and then, for the first time, we hear the full statement of the ‘flat’ material, Andante Lamentoso.  The music’s sorrow increases with wave after wave of romantic ardour, deliberately risking overkill and discomfort.

At its climax the music halts twice at a precipice then tumbles into the recapitulation, the opening theme now in white-note tonality and unrecognizably spotted across the keyboard.  As this peters out we hear the same theme but now with warm, gentle, romantic harmonies.  A final build-up to an exact repetition of the opening of the piece is blended with material from the B section and, in the last bar, in a final wild scream, we hear all three tonalities together for a blinding second-long flash, brighter than noon, before the final soft chord closes the curtain on these night visions.

- Stephen Hough

Stephen Hough’s Piano sonata No. 2 (notturno luminoso) is a joint commission with funds generously supplied by Lakeside Arts Centre, University of Nottingham; The Schubert Club, St. Paul, Minnesota; Singapore International Piano Festival; Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts; and the Vancouver Recital Society. It was given its premiere by the composer at the Brangwyn Hall, Swansea Festival of Music and the Arts, on October 9, 2012.

 

Robert Schumann: Carnaval, Op. 9

Carnaval consists of 22 musical vignettes, all constructed from three tiny motifs whose notes are derived from the name of a little German town, Asch. (Today it is Aš, just over the border in the Czech Republic, near Bayreuth, Germany). This was where Schumann’s current flame, Ernestine von Fricken, came from. Matters progressed to the point where Schumann and Ernestine became engaged in December of 1834. That month, Schumann began writing the music that he eventually entitled Carnaval.

As any student of music history knows, Schumann jilted Ernestine in favor of Clara Wieck. But for the moment, the 24-year-old composer was infatuated with Ernestine. He discovered that the four letters of Ernestine’s birthplace, Asch, were also in his own name. (In German terms, S=Es (E flat), and H=B natural.) The autobiographical element goes further. Characters from Schumann’s life – both real and imagined – are portrayed, including his wife-to-be Clara (“Chiarina”), Ernestine (“Estrella”), Chopin and Paganini. Then there are the two aspects of Schumann’s musical personality: the quiet dreamer as reflected in Eusebius, and the passionate intensity of Florestan. Figures from the commedia dell’arte of Italian carnivals make appearances: Pierrot, Arlequin, Pantalon and Columbine. Every piece in Carnaval, except the “Préambule”, is based on an ASCH motif, which usually appears at the opening and is then developed in ways both obvious and obscure. However, two years after completing Carnaval, Schumann told his colleague Ignaz Moscheles that he was more interested in the “soul-states” conjured up by the music – the emotions and moods – than in programmatic associations of the movement titles.

 

Program notes for Chopin, Brahms and Schumann by Robert Markow, 2012.

Stephen Says (Wednesday November 14)

Posted on by

Stephen Says: Naked men: what’s the problem? Stephen visits Vienna’s Leopold Gallery and muses, “it’s strange how we create artificial boundaries of tolerance.”

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Monday November 12)

Posted on by

Stephen Says: Arresting a Cold: an encounter with honey and the law

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.

Stephen Says (Friday November 9)

Posted on by

Stephen Says: Ravel and Debussy are  “completely different animals.”

Read the Stephen Hough’s full blog for the Telegraph here

 


English pianist Stephen Hough is a true Renaissance man; he is a critically acclaimed musician, composer, journalist, painter and blogger! As we approach Stephen’s November 25th concert at the Chan Centre, join the VRS in our blog series Stephen Says providing you with excerpts and links to Stephen Hough’s blog on The Telegraph.