In the 19th century, an often-nasty and overwrought debate played out on the classical music stages and pages of Europe. On one side were composers of a revolutionary cast, intent on the melding of musical forms with poetry, myth, history, even philosophy. They championed the progressive, connective idea of programmatic music: musical compositions hitched to an external story or structure of some kind, a subtext. Berlioz and especially Wagner represented this new wave. On the other side were composers derided as traditionalist and form-bound: Schumann, Brahms and others, who were content to work with and advance the myriad and malleable forms of Bach, Mozart and Beethoven and who saw no reason for music – the highest and purest of the arts – to lean on another art for its structure, resonance and meaning. The music is the meaning, fools, and the form is the form.
The revolutionary-versus-conservative roleplay turned out to be garbage, for the most part. Certainly, Wagner electrified Europe with his riveting operas and orchestral innovations, and he remains the preferred composer of fascists everywhere. But the tunesmith most often derided for his backward-looking traditionalism, Johannes Brahms, turned out to be the most progressive of them all, in terms of harmonic and thematic development – i.e., in terms of music: a fact recognized and honored by Arnold Schoenberg, the mathy 20th-century composer who progressed classical music right out of a popular audience and who claimed Brahms for his school.
For all the heat of the programmatic/absolute music debate, there was always the stormy, illuminated middle ground where the sides agreed: opera, where serious music met story – any story – and its most opulent pageantry. All the composers respected great operas, though many were intimidated by the challenge and maybe lacked the touch. Beethoven, of the nine great symphonies and concerti-out-the-wazoo, managed one opera. An ardent admirer and champion of Wagner’s operas, even though the respect was never mutual, Brahms contemplated opera his entire career and never produced one. Apparently, he gave long consideration to an opera on the subject of the California Gold Rush. I think he made the right decision.
So opera is one of the big guns of serious music, its grandest and most logistically demanding form (Mahler’s symphonies notwithstanding), but also an outlier. It is the quarry of a handful of great composers, most of them Italian, and a divided wing of the tradition that tends to keep to its own. Many classical radio stations only play opera in nationally syndicated programs on weekend mornings, and play only its instrumental overtures during drive time. Opera typically has its own halls, in the Wagnerian tradition, and many ardent fans of classical music simply do not understand what all the yelling is about, even as they allow generous bandwidth for the great achievements in choral music and lieder.
Opera, even more than the multi-movement forms of the symphony and the concerto, lends itself to the cherry-picking of its highlights, skipping the plateaus of narrative advancement to get right to emotional payoffs and pulmonary workouts of the great arias. If you need big, opera is often where you look. When the venerable Hudson Valley Philharmonic (HVP) kicks off its 59th (!) season, conductor Randall Craig Fleischer and the gang “go there”: A Night of Opera & Ballet Music on Saturday, October 13 at the Bardavon in Poughkeepsie. No, this has nothing to do with the rock group Queen’s most famous record; but, given Maestro Fleischer’s long and transgressive history of bringing rock into the repertoire, would it really surprise you if it did?
This is a night of operatic jewels. The season-opening HVP concert will feature two classic opera overtures from Rossini and Verdi, and plentiful arias from Puccini, Verdi (from Tosca, Gianni Schicchi, Madama Butterfly, Rigoletto and Turandot), as well as Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. It is an evening for swooning.
Opera requires stud singers, and this concert features three: American soprano Sara Beth Pearson made her solo debut with the Metropolitan Opera in its 2012 production of Manon, part of The Met: Live in HD series. She was subsequently invited to return as a soloist in La Rondine and Les Dialogues des Carmelites. Pearson was featured in the inaugural season of the Maryland Lyric Opera as Nedda in Pagliacci, and debuted her Mimì as part of the Crested Butte Music Festival’s production of La Bohème. 2015 marked her European debut, in the title role of Puccini’s Suor Angelica at the Trentino Music Festival in Italy.
Baritone Robert Kerr went to Japan for engagements in performances of Requiem by Minoru Miki in Natori and reprised the work at the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center. He was Germont in La Traviata with the Arroyo Foundation, he performed concerts with the Columbus Symphony and he covered the role of the King in El Gato con Botas with the Gotham Chamber Opera. Kerr was a soloist with the New York City Opera Orchestra in a Japan tour of Carmina Burana and sang Tonio in Pagliacci with Opera Columbus.
Mexican-Italian tenor Mauricio Trejo was recently distinguished by the Wagner Society of New York as a promising Wagnerian tenor. In August 2016, Trejo received a full scholarship to further expand his Wagnerian tenor repertoire at the Lotte Lehmann Akademie, where he also performed concerts in Germany. He has been hailed as “a tenor with a silver bullet top,” “the possessor of a clear and powerful instrument of great beauty,” “a revelation” (Luzerner Zeitung).
Speaking of innovation, for this concert and going forward, the Bardavon has installed a hearing loop system. The entire orchestra section is now equipped with a phased-array hearing loop system. This system provides a wireless signal to a person’s T-coil-equipped hearing aid or cochlear implant device. For those without T-coil-equipped hearing aids or who would like hearing assistance, a hearing loop receiver (with earbuds) is available at the box office for use during the performance. Individuals may also use their own earbuds or headsets with the hearing loop receiver. The installation was made possible through a generous donation from longtime Bardavon/HVP supporters Julia and Albert Rosenblatt and Rita and Morton Alterman.
Single tickets to all HVP concerts cost $20 to $57 based on location. To purchase tickets, call or visit the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; or visit www.bardavon.org.