Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Resurrection Project

Trilogy: Three One-Act Portraits of Marriage
Conducted and conceived by James Conlon
Realized by Darko Tresnjak and James Marvel
Directed by James Marvel
Singers from the Juilliard Opera Center and the Juilliard Orchestra

November 12, 14, 16, 2008
Peter Jay Sharp Theater, The Juilliard School
155 West 65th Street

Conductor Conlon (photo: Ravinia Festival)
Mussorgsky's The Marriage, part of Trilogy
(photo: Nan Melville)
A world-class conductor like James Conlon–who is the music director of the Los Angeles Opera, Ravinia Festival and Cincinnati May Festival and a sought-after guest conductor with ensembles like the New York Philharmonic, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Philadelphia Orchestra–might seem too busy to involve himself with less high-profile side projects. Yet Conlon has made it his mission to unearth important works variously suppressed by the Nazis through his “Recovered Voices” series, in which he leads concerts and operas by these forgotten composers.

In addition, Maestro Conlon is in the midst of a two-year Juilliard School residency in which he’s working with students on several cross-genre projects, including Trilogy, which he conceived and is conducting. A trio of one-act operas by Modest Mussorgsky, Ernest Krenek and Benjamin Fleischmann about various stages in married life, Trilogy is a fully-staged production with Juilliard singers and musicians.

In the midst of rehearsals at Juilliard, Conlon discussed Trilogy and its relation to his mission to keep alive music that, for one reason or another, has been rarely heard.

Kevin Filipski: Combining three obscure one-acts written nearly a century apart into a 90-minute performance isn’t the most obvious operatic idea, so how did Trilogy come about?
James Conlon: It all started with Mussorgsky’s The Marriage, which has been germinating for at least 30 years as something for me to both conduct and have staged—ever since I first heard it as a teenager. I see Trilogy is a theatrical-musical experiment, because in general we have not been very imaginative in the opera world to try and bring diverse works together that would set each other off and illuminate the whole.

KF: Are you performing the entire two-act Marriage, which was finished by Alexander Tcherepnin, or just the first act, which was all Mussorgsky finished?
JC: We’re definitely doing the Mussorgsky version, which interests me more than what Tcherepnin did. To be honest, I wanted to make my own orchestration, but time got away from me, so I tried to find the oldest orchestrations available. There was one done before the Russian Revolution by (Alexander) Galk, then another one later by (Mikhail) Ippolitov-Ivanov. But when I went to Moscow to conduct and spend time trying to track down that orchestration, even the Ivanov Society could not find it! So Tcherepnin was the only choice. Mussorgsky was one of the most extraordinary geniuses who ever lived, and consider how influential he is, even with as little music as he left us. Most 20th century European music has taken Mussorgsky into account: from Debussy to Messiaen to Poulenc, the French were greatly influenced by him, the Germans a little less, and the Russians profoundly, of course. Doing The Marriage is all about Mussorgsky, not Tcherepnin.

KF: You have been at the forefront of performing music by composers displaced or murdered by the Nazis, and on this bill, both Ernst Krenek (who fled to the United States) and Benjamin Fleischmann (who was killed fighting in the Russian army) fit that description.
JC: My mission is to restore the music of a specific time period that has been suppressed, and every story is different. The real damage was the total shattering of the German musical tradition of the 1920s and ‘30s, which includes Krenek. Fleischmann is on the periphery of that, since he was a Russian, a student of Shostakovich, and doesn’t belong to the community of composers that the Nazi suppression deeply affected, like Zemlinsky, Schreker and Ullmann, and those who escaped, like Weill, Hindemith and Krenek. Trilogy is not conceived in any way about Nazism or about those recovered voices–the musical commonalities are between Mussorgsky and Fleischmann, and historically, the tie is between Krenek and Fleischmann. Part of the Trilogy concept is that this non-stop 90-minute performance generates an atmosphere where the sharp and brutal juxtaposition of periods and styles allows us no time to recover or take in its juxtaposition of such different music. My experience of doing operas like Salome, Elektra and The Dwarf–an hour and half of music packed into one act–is a much more intense experience that builds up the energy.

KF: You have been working a lot recently with the Juilliard Orchestra, with whom you gave the world premiere of Ellen Zwilich’s superb Fifth Symphony at Carnegie Hall last month, and now you are performing Trilogy. Describe working with these student musicians.
JC: Part of the fun is conducting very gifted and talented young people. With established musicians, you gain in experience, but there’s a freshness, an absolute enthusiasm and a high level of instrumentality in these students. That’s part of the joy of being–I guess I would call myself middle-aged–and the fun is in teaching them. Preparing them to perform Trilogy is a very different experience from their Carnegie Hall concert (playing Zwilich’s and Mahler’s Fifth Symphonies). That was a thoroughly joyful encounter for all of us—Ellen Zwilich and I went to school together, so we know each other from way back.

KF: As music director of Los Angeles Opera, you’re performing operas each season from these “recovered voices.” How is that initiative going, and why did you decide on doing The Birds by Walter Braunfels, which is scheduled for April 2009?
JC: Well, The Birds is a beautiful work, an extraordinary opera which was a fantastic success originally, then inexplicably fell into obscurity. We have plans for these operas, we just hope that we also have money. Our next big project is the first production in America of Franz Schreker’s Die Gezeichneten. It’s very important that we can keep this series going because a lot of people are very devoted to it. This is not tokenism, nor tipping a hat, it’s our determination that these works return to the repertoire. Last year’s staging (of Zemlinsky The Dwarf and Ullmann’s The Jar) was absolute pandemonium and was a stunning success. I always say that our problem is to get people to come, because once they hear this music, they always react to these powerful works.

originally posted on timessquare.com

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