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Classically Speaking / Following the music of summer

Harriet Krijgh performs with the Chautaqua Symphony Orchestra

Krijgh photo by Marco Borggreve; Marwood photo by Pia Johnson


Sometime in the mid-sixties, Allen Ginsburg wrote a powerful antiwar poem entitled “Wichita Vortex Sutra.” He believed that the conservatism of the American heartland gave birth to “a vortex of hatred” that resulted in years of death and destruction in Vietnam. As a practicing Buddhist, Ginsberg added the word “sutra,” a reference to Buddhist scriptures such as the Kama Sutra. More than twenty years after writing the poem, Ginsberg ran into composer Philip Glass in an East Village bookstore in New York, and Glass proposed an artistic collaboration. Evenings of beat poetry and minimalist music eventually evolved into a chamber opera entitled Hydrogen Jukebox.


The work presents an alternative  overview of mid- to late-twentieth century America, and reflects on many of Ginsberg’s perennial themes, including oppostion to war, sexual revolution, drugs, Eastern philosphy, and the environment. The title is taken from a line in “Howl,” the poet’s signature work, which reads, in part, “...who sank all night in the submarine of light of Bickfords floated out and sat through the stale beer afternoon in desolate Fugazzi’s, listening to the crack of doom on the hydrogen jukebox...” The chamber opera features a small orchestra and six vocal parts representing six American characters: waitress, policeman, businessman, cheerleader, priest, and mechanic. On July 31 and August 1, Hydrogen Jukebox is presented at Norton Hall on the grounds of the Chautauqua Institution, one of three operas at Chautauqua this summer.


Since the strains of live symphonic or chamber music are virtually nonexistent in Buffalo in August, classical music junkies are once again advised to get their summer orchestral fix by packing up the Pierce-Arrow and hitting the road. The pleasant drive to Chautauqua takes just over an hour, and the gate pass includes admission to nearly all events. The big news this summer is the grand opening of the hotly contested “renewed” Amphitheater, “renewed” the word apparently chosen to placate those opposed to the destruction of the old one, which had been built circa 1893, and demolished to make way for a new facility. The new Amp seats about 4,400 patrons, with twenty percent more seats under the roof, a thirteen percent greater total capacity. The back of the house features three stories of dressing rooms, offices, and storage rooms. There’s also a bigger stage, a rising orchestra pit, better sightlines, more handrails, wheelchair-accessible seats, and a radio frequency sound system available to the hearing impaired. Best of all, the new Amp is an aesthetically pleasing modern addition to the village and its iconic nineteenth century houses, grand hotels, temples of performance and music, and classical open-air halls of lectures and learning.


On Thursday, August 3, conductor Rossen Milanov leads the Chautauqua Symphony Orchestra in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 5. Leonard Bernstein, whose centenary will be celebrated throughout the next musical season, once described Mahler as “a colossus straddling the magic date of 1900,” and without whom “twentieth-century music could not exist as we know it.” While much of Mahler No. 5 comprises robust brass and warring percussion amid sweeping melodic themes, its short fourth movement, the romantic and melancholy Adagietto, is played only by strings and harp and was used in the soundtrack to Luchino Visconti’s film version of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice. On August 5, guest conductor Stuart Chafetz steers the CSO through a program of “Opera Pops.”  The program of musical theater favorites also includes the Chautauqua Opera Apprentice and Studio Artists directed by Andy Gale. A percussionist who has also held conducting posts in Louisville, Milwaukee, and Hawaii, Mr. Chafetz serves as the orchestra’s regular timpanist when not conducting it.


The evening of August 8 brings the twenty-six-year-old international cellist Harriet Krijgh in a performance of Haydn’s Cello Concerto in C major with the CSO led by guest conductor Daniel Boico. The concerto is replete with technical challenges, not the least of which is the finale, a series of long passages played in the instrument’s highest register. Also on the program: Respighi’s Trittico botticelliano, or Three Botticelli Pictures, inspired by paintings in the Uffizi Gallery entitled Spring, The Adoration of the Magi, and The Birth of Venus. The program closes with Symphonic Dances, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s last composition, featuring an alto saxophone solo in the first movement.


Guitarist Steven Mackey and violinist Anthony Marwood are performing at Chautauqua.


“Classicism to Iconoclasm” is the title of the August 10 CSO program that spotlights two soloists: British violinist Anthony Marwood and American electric guitarist Steven Mackey performing Mackey’s composition Four Iconoclastic Episodes. Describing one of the Episodes, Mackey writes, “‘Like an Animal’ is an homage to the jazz/rock fusion music of the Mahavishnu Orchestra: changing meters, satanic harmonics, virtuosic interplay between electric guitar and violin.” Representing the evening’s classicism will be performances of Mozart’s Symphony No. 41 and Haydn’s 101st Symphony in D Major. On August 12, Maestro Milanov and the CSO accompany the Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre in a program of new interpretations of classic ballets featuring the music of Leo Delibes (Coppelia), Adolphe Adam (Le Corsaire), and W. A. Mozart (Petit Mort-movements from two piano concertos).


A Russian Evening takes place on August 15 as the CSO presents a program of Prokofiev (War and Peace Symphonic Suite), Rimsky-Korsakov (Russian Easter Festival Overture), and Tchaikovsky (Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture and Mazeppa, Act 1: Gopak). Mazeppa is an opera by Tchaikovsky with a libretto based on a poem by Pushkin. The Gopak is the classic Ukrainian Cossack dance featured in the opera’s first act. The final CSO concert of the season on August 17, “A Hymn, a Poem, a Symphony,” is conducted by Giancarlo Guerrero. The hymn is the immortal Finlandia by Jean Sibelius, written in 1899 for a pageant celebrating Finnish freedom of the press and which ultimately became the composer’s most famous work outside of Finland, even though Sibelius deemed it “a relatively insignificant piece.” The lushly romantic and melancholy Poème by Ernest Chausson features violinist Brian Reagin, concertmaster of the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra. And speaking of romantic, the Symphony No. 3 by Felix Mendelssohn, long known as the “Scottish” because it was inspired by a walking tour of the Hebrides and the ruins of a palace in Edinburgh, completes this season finale.


Three chamber concerts are scheduled on Monday afternoons in August at Chautauqua, the first of which is on August 7 and features the JACK Quartet. Based in New York City, the quartet has not announced its program at this writing but is well known for its adventuresome forays into new chamber works by the likes of John Luther Adams, Caroline Shaw, Steve Reich, and John Zorn. Then on the afternoon of Monday, August 14, the Kaler Family Trio will once again confirm the old adage about the family that plays together, well in this case, travels the world making beautiful music together. Mother Olga, father Ilya, and son Daniel Kaler, each a superb violinist, combine forces to present a program of chamber music to be announced. Capping off the chamber offerings on August 21 is Founders, a songwriting quintet of New York City conservatory-trained musicians who combine folk, classical, and original music with unmistakable rock beats and jazz grooves. All chamber concerts are held at Lenna Hall at 4 p.m.


For more information about these events at Chautauqua, click here.


Opera lovers should also consider a Glimmerglass getaway. On the shores of Lake Otsego just north of Cooperstown, the Glimmerglass Festival presents four musical stage productions throughout most of July and much of August. The season opens with a new production of Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin’s classic opera based on DuBose Hayward’s love story (July 7–August 21), and Rogers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma!, directed by conductor James Lowe (July 8–August 22).


A production of Handel’s Xerxes  (July 15–August 17) carries audiences back to ancient Persia and its conquering ruler. Also known as Serse, the opera was first performed in London in 1738, then vanished from the stage for nearly two centuries. While Xerxes is known to history as a fierce warlord, the plot of the opera shines on his family life and romantic longings.


Donizetti’s opera The Siege of Calais (July 16–August 19) is based on an actual event in 1346 during the Hundred Years’ War when the citizens of Calais resisted a siege of their city for over a year before finally surrendering to the British under Edward III. Director Francesca Zambello has placed the setting of the opera in the present to underscore the historically universal themes of war, suffering, and the plight of refugees. “The Siege of Calais has incredibly beautiful music about a brutal story,” Zambello remarks. “Asking people to sacrifice themselves so their countrymen can live is horrific, and I think it’s hard to grasp that it is still happening. We’re still fighting about the same things.”


For more information on the Glimmerglass Festival, go to glimmerglass.org.                


Musician Philip Nyhuis is a longtime Spree contributor.

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