Friday, January 6, 2012

"Great music is an inexhaustible source..."

This week Opera Roanoke and St John's Episcopal Church are co-producing Gian Carlo Menotti's beloved holiday opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. Our distinguished guest conductor was a long-time colleague of the composer, the first maestro del coro of the Festival dei due Mondi in Spoleto, Italy, and a founding artistic director of the Spoleto Festival USA.

Joseph Flummerfelt is the greatest teacher I've known. I am one among hundreds of his graduate conducting students, applying his tutelage in a vocation of making music and meaning.

One of the most distinguished of these colleagues is the conductor Donald Nally, and it is his recent book Conversations with Joseph Flummerfelt (Scarecrow Press, 2010) from which most of the following quotes come. I cannot overstate my gratitude to my friend and colleague for the labor of love his book is.

It is difficult for me to believe 15 years have already passed since I graduated from Westminster Choir College and embarked on a multifaceted musical career in which I've had the privilege of teaching at three universities, conducting amateur choirs of all shapes and sizes, a professional chamber choir, in addition to singing on recital, concert and opera stages across the USA and Europe. It is as the general and artistic director of a small regional opera company in Virginia I invited my mentor to guest conduct a work dear to both of us.

We have reminisced about many of the memorable experiences from my days at Westminster, which included frequent collaborations with the Philadelphia Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic, the New Jersey Symphony, annual visits to Spoleto (USA), tours to Taiwan and South Korea, and an appearance at the Colmar Festival in northern France.

One of my most cherished memories was the performance of Stravinsky's Mass which Joe conducted with the Moscow Virtuosi at the 1996 Colmar Festival. It was in one of those amazing medieval cathedrals which remind us how deeply rooted is the European cultural heritage to which we are great-great-great-grandnieces & nephews. Joe describes the essence of Stravinsky's style (and his affinity for it) in Donald's book:

Stravinsky's ear for sonority, his voicing, his economy of means, his structural clarity - are all qualities that attract me.

I recall Joe sharing experiences from one of his primary teachers, Nadia Boulanger, who said Stravinsky's Mass "must be like it's carved out of stone." Thus, as Joe repeated to us constantly while working on this masterpiece of musical economy, this music is "very direct, very objective." And as is characteristic of this master teacher, he went one step further, one layer deeper beneath the surface to get at the root, the true essence of whatever the particular "it" is:

The objectivity of his setting of the Mass contributes to its universality.

And there is an example of true wisdom. It is born of the synthesis of experience & aptitude, intelligence & insight, and it possesses the courage necessary to remain open enough to probe the depths of our human condition and ask the questions that guide us along the path of the examined, authentic life. This is the essence of what Joe taught me, anyway.

An ambitious over-achiever, one of my goals was to leave my graduate studies with a "perfect" 4.0 GPA. I was crushed when I received a B+ in my second graduate conducting course with Dr Flummerfelt. Believing I was always well-prepared and more than carried my own weight in class, I mustered up the gumption to ask "the greatest choral conductor in the world" (Bernstein's superlative for Flummerfelt) why his personal graduate assistant received "only" a B+?!?

"I don't think you went deep enough, Scott. Consider this a challenge to go deeper beneath the surface."

I have been probing those depths with more attention than I knew I had in the intervening years. Joe also warned us how we are inclined to be our own worst enemies because we block our inherent creativity by getting in our own way. "Get out of the way!" he barked to all of us when our over-conducting crowded out the real voices of Bach, Brahms or Britten.

We mistake surface perfection for substantial depth, focusing on technical details at the expense of the subterranean essentials. I may have replaced being "stuck" on the surface of "getting it right" with being stuck in the deep swamp of what it really means. But like following the "road less traveled" or entering the dark woods which Dante articulated (around the same time that old French cathedral was literally carved out of stone) the only journey worth taking is the inward one towards authenticity.

Joe often speaks of "the gift of connection," which he identifies with "the source." It is a connection to this unnameable "divine" source which inspires musical monuments like Bach's B Minor Mass, Beethoven's 9th Symphony, and the Requiem settings of Mozart, Brahms & Verdi (to name just a precious few). This connection "allows the music of a great composer to enrich our human understanding and to help quench our spiritual thirst."

Maestro Flummerfelt is a great teacher of humanity, and in his enlarging view of what it is to be human is a key to his music-making. Earlier this week we spoke of the fundamental craving our species ever has for the authentic, the real, the genuine. As he observed to Maestro Nally, "the world is desperate for connection, and yet often goes after it in all sorts of misbegotten ways."

The heart of Nally's book and the essence of Dr Flummerfelt's teaching of conducting concerns the "crossing," the nexus or the center where meaning is experienced. This is an intersection of horizontal and vertical, cognitive and intuitive, linear or ontological time (chronos) and psychological time (kairos). This dialectic is variously symbolized as Yin and Yang and understood as Classical and Romantic or intellectual and affective. Finding the balance where form and content coexist in perfect harmony can be exasperatingly elusive.

Joe demonstrates this cognitive / intuitive dialectic with a telling juxtaposition. On one side is the classical enlightenment of Cartesian logic's "I think, therefore I am" with Pascal's more affective "the heart has its reasons, which reason cannot know."

In the classroom and in rehearsal, Joe repeatedly exhorted us to "be in the moment." This axiom is at the heart of nearly all of the world's religions (and is front & center in much Eastern philosophy, especially Buddhism). It is increasingly elusive in our technologically-driven world. Being "connected" via "social media" does not an authentic life make. Again, we mistake surface for substance too easily, and as our Anglican friends remind us, we "lose the plot." Technology (the horizontal) "has gotten so fast that we can't experience the vertical."

Most of us seem to be caught up in an ever-accelerating horizontal existence. We become diverted from being in the moment, by living in the past or in the future, thus not experiencing the full reality of each passing moment.

Art is one of the primary means we have of experiencing the vertical and connecting to that source. The stillness of being truly centered, and thus really open, is at the heart of "experiencing the full reality" of the moments of our lives.

Is it any wonder focusing, grounding or centering the breath is also at the core of meditation practice?

Joe taught us to really breathe - not just the necessary "inspiration" of inhalation - but to really open, release, let go, get out of the way and allow the moment to just happen.

Breath, in the fullest sense of the word, becomes a kind of vertical intersecting of this horizontal, historical continuum. So my belief that being fully alive, fully connected to a multidimensional embrace of life, happens at that crossing.

I had the privilege of experiencing that crossing with Joseph Flummerfelt on many occasions, and I am humbled and grateful he agreed to conduct Amahl in Roanoke this week. The singers have had a wonderful week working with him, and the orchestra responded beautifully to his leadership last night in our combined rehearsal.

"Music is a moral / ethical force that ministers to humanity." And Joseph Flummerfelt is a true minister sharing his prodigious gift. "Great music is an inexhaustible source." Thank you for sharing both yourself and this inexhaustible gift of great music, dearest Joe.

Monday, January 2, 2012

"Out & About" with Amahl, and a note from the guest conductor

Today's Roanoke Times featured the following "Out & About" article on our
upcoming production of Amahl & the Night Visitors, Friday Jan 6
at 6 pm at St John's Episcopal Church:

I posted my program note yesterday; below is a note from
our eminent guest conductor, Joseph Flummerfelt about his
work with the composer Gian Carlo Menotti.

A note from the guest conductor:

I am old enough to remember the world premiere of Amahl and the Night Visitors. I was only a freshman in high school, but its touching story and beautiful melodies left a lasting impression on me, and it is these qualities which cause it to continue to be the most performed work in the operatic genre. As a young teenager, little could I have imagined how intertwined my professional life would be with its composer.

That began forty years ago, when Menotti invited me to bring my choir to be a part of the world-renowned festival he founded in Spoleto, Italy. In 1977 Menotti founded its sister festival, Spoleto USA in Charleston, South Carolina, and the Westminster Choir, which I directed, continued to work with him in both festivals until 1994. Spoleto USA continues to thrive, and last summer I conducted Menotti’s one-act tragedy, The Medium, which the festival presented to honor the centennial of his birth.

Although the many years of collaboration with Gian Carlo included the Westminster Choir being the chorus for the festival operas, which included not only his own works, but many other operas he directed, Amahl was not among them because of its seasonal content. So it was a special joy when Scott Williamson called, offering me the opportunity to conduct this work, which I had loved for so many years, but only as a member of the audience.

That this performance is taking place in Roanoke is, in a certain way, also related to my long association with Menotti. During the Seventies, at the festival in Italy, I became a friend of the composer Samuel Barber, who had been Gian Carlo’s partner for many years. Barber loved the Westminster Choir, and when he became ill with cancer, he asked me to conduct the choir at his funeral when that time would come. A few years later, I received a phone call from Menotti saying that the end was near. The service would be in Barber’s hometown of Chester, Pennsylvania, but unfortunately the Choir was just about to leave for its spring tour. Providentially, on the day of the funeral, the choir had a free day in Roanoke, and I was able to fly back for the service.

That was in 1980, which, I believe, is the last time I was in this city. So being able to return to Roanoke so many years later, and to be a part of this production brings back a flood of memories about the man who gave us this beautiful work, and with whom I had the honor to work for so many years.

--Joseph Flummerfelt

Sunday, January 1, 2012

A note on Amahl & the Night Visitors

I hope you will join Opera Roanoke Friday, January 6 at 6 pm for a FREE concert production of Menotti's beloved holiday opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors. This is a joint production with our host, St John's Episcopal Church as part of their series of free concerts in downtown Roanoke, "Music on the Corner." Below is a short note I wrote for the program.

A note from the Artistic Director on Amahl and the Night Visitors

Gian Carlo Menotti had already composed five operas when Amahl and the Night Visitors aired on NBC on Christmas Eve in 1951, the first opera written for TV. His first opera premiered in 1937 at the Curtis Institute (where he and his companion, Samuel Barber had both studied). Amelia Goes to the Ball went on to the Metropolitan Opera the following season. His next opera was The Old Maid and the Thief (1939), the first written for radio. Two early dramas, The Medium (1946) and The Consul (1950) are among his most acclaimed works and enjoyed successes on Broadway. Indeed, the latter earned Menotti his first New York Drama Critics Award and Pulitzer Prize.

With Amahl, Menotti revealed one of the most enduring – and endearing – qualities of his voice. It was the first of 6 children’s operas he wrote. From the opera’s opening scene our sympathies lie with Amahl because this spirited boy with the gift of imagination so inspired his composer. And the immediacy with which Amahl touches its listeners is indeed inspired. Like the music, the story Menotti devised (he wrote his own librettos) is deceptively simple, its surface familiar enough to belie how intricately shaped and masterfully crafted it is. The summary of the plot provided by his publisher consists of one sentence.

The story concerns the crippled shepherd boy Amahl, who offers his crutch as a present to the Christ child, is healed, and joins the Three Kings on their way to Bethlehem.

The summary is specific in ways Menotti’s libretto is not. While the opera fits ideally in a church setting, the work does not explicitly name “the Child” as Christ. Neither is Bethlehem mentioned by name. Among Menotti’s finest passages of music is the hymn sung by the three kings and Amahl’s mother in the middle of the work. Melchior rhetorically inquires, “Have you seen a Child the color of wheat, the color of dawn?” The Mother, “as though to herself” names her own child in response. It is one of the most poignant expressions of maternal love in the theater, and is central to the opera’s dramatic fulcrum two scenes later when the destitute mother acts in desperation to steal some of the king’s gold. After Amahl’s touching defense of his mother (“Don’t you dare, ugly man, hurt my mother!”) the opera’s lyrical opening theme returns heralding the work’s denouement. Across the taut span of this three-quarter of an hour opera, Menotti balances melodic grace that lingers in the memory with rhythmic vitality that propels the drama forward. He is a master of compositional craftsmanship with the keen dramatic instincts of a gifted storyteller.

Our presentation of Amahl and the Night Visitors places the music front and center in the beautiful, historic nave of St John’s Episcopal Church. Rather than set this production in the Christmas “pageant” genre (with gilded Magi, sheep-skinned shepherds and the like), we have chosen an “Our Town” setting to bring this wonderful story to life, here and now.