Swans Commentary » swans.com May 23, 2011  



April Concerts And Operas In London
("Including 'The Proud Bassoon'")


by Isidor Saslav



Pic: "Wigmore Programme, April 16, 2011" - Size: 9k
Wigmore Programme, April 16, 2011



(Swans - May 23, 2011)   It's not every day that you get to attend a concert during which 17 bassoonists line up on stage and perform simultaneously. Nor is it a common event for anyone to hear a concert as part of the oldest running chamber music series in the world, started in 1887. An equally unusual event is to see a Russian opera from 1899 that features a soprano's mad scene in the final act as if in competition with Gaetano Donizetti's (1797-1847) Lucia di Lammermoor (1835).

But I experienced all these arcane events, and more, during a recent trip to London that I took in April, arriving during the London Marathon but leaving before the royal wedding. The purpose of my trip was to attend a memorial concert in honor of the late prominent English bassoonist, chamber musician, author, and scholar, and my long-time friend, William Waterhouse (1931-2007). The concert had been organized by Bill's widow Elisabeth, well known in London as pianist, violinist, and educator. Elisabeth and I had created a violin-piano duo when we both had been exchange students at the Hochschule fuer Musik in Munich in the 1950s. Elisabeth had invited 17 of Bill's friends, colleagues, and former students from all over the world to participate in this memorial concert and they all came from places like Japan, Italy, and Texas (two of us: one bassoonist from Lubbock plus myself from Overton as auditor) to honor the man whom we so respected and esteemed. Elisabeth had produced a handsome memorial program filled with tribute letters from many of Bill's admirers.

For many years Bill had been part of a prominent London chamber music group known as the Melos Ensemble. The clarinetist of this ensemble had been the legendary Gervase de Peyer. Lo and behold, who came out of retirement at age 85 to perform on this concert -- none other than the iconic de Peyer himself, to help perform the finale from Franz Schubert's (1797-1828) Octet, D803 (1824), which closed the afternoon concert at London's most prestigious chamber music venue, Wigmore Hall, on April 16, 2011. I even got a cordial autograph from de Peyer and promised him that when I got home to Texas I would break out all of his recordings that we had in our collection.

Elisabeth and friends had chosen an intriguing collection of nine bassoon-related works to perform, which, except for the Schubert, I had never heard a note of in my life, one of which I had never even heard of the composer himself. I say "bassoon-related" because there was one work of the nine in which not a bassoon was to be heard, an Epitaphium In Memoriam WRW for string trio getting its United Kingdom premiere, written by Graham Waterhouse, cellist, composer, resident of Munich, and son of Elisabeth and Bill.

Graham had composed two works that were featured on the program. Besides the Epitaphium we had already heard Bright Angel, for three bassoons and contrabassoon. Bright Angel portrayed the impressions of a younger, 9-year-old Graham Waterhouse of a trip through the Grand Canyon in 1972, during one of his family's professional tours of the United States, which his father would occasionally make. Bill Waterhouse was serving as a guest faculty member at Indiana University in that year and the family swung by Baltimore to visit our family too, getting to know our own young children of about the same age. Indeed, when the contrabassoon played its final long note of Bright Angel one could easily be reminded of looking into the Grand Canyon's depths. The Epitaphium was an equally successful work, recapitulating in its successive styles Vaughan Williams (1872-1958), Britten (1913-76), and Tippett (1905-98) in an expressive, exuberant, and most English way.

Appropriately, in memory of their father, two more Waterhouse family members joined cellist Graham in the Epitaphium, violinist Celia, and violist Lucy. Each of these family members participated in several of the other works on the program as well, Lucy with Baroque violin and Cramer bow and with modern violin also. Both Celia and Lucy are prominent musicians on the contemporary London scene as is Graham in Germany. Mrs. Saslav and I had watched from afar these three offspring grow to maturity and musical prominence over the years so I felt very much at home.

Other composers featured on the program as well were Giovanni Gabrieli (1554-1612, in an arrangement by WW for those 17 bassoons), Anton Reicha (1770-1836), Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741), Gordon Jacob (1895-1984), Jean Françaix (1912-97), and Giuseppe Tamplini (1807-88), a virtuoso Italian operatic bassoonist and composer of the 19th century, and the one composer I had never heard of before. Appropriately enough the Tamplini was performed by a contemporary Italian bassoonist, Stefano Canuti, who blew us away with the brilliant technique with which he executed Tamplini's virtuose Fantasia on Themes of Donizetti. (To catch Canuti's performance of this work, though at a different festival, go to YouTube at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gf4hJW69ys0) These various composers incorporated the bassoon into different sorts of ensembles including wind quintet, concerto with flute, bassoon plus string quartet, and virtuoso bassoon accompanied by strings.

The program book bore the title "The Proud Bassoon," and after hearing all these international virtuosi in action one had no doubt of that title's appropriateness. For an excellent online review of this event by Nick Breckenfield in a magazine called Classical Source.com use the following link:

In 1887 a concert series was established at London's South Place Institute in Finsbury. In its fourth year a review appeared of its activities in The World by that newspaper's music critic, George Bernard Shaw (1856-1950). The occasion for the review was the London premiere of Max Bruch's (1838-1920) Third Violin Concerto, Op. 58, as performed by Hans Wessely (prominent resident London violinist 1862-1926) with piano at the "South Place Sunday Popular Concerts" on October 11, 1891. Shaw mentioned that Pablo de Sarasate (1844-1908) performed it shortly thereafter in London with full orchestra. The work had just been given its world premiere the same year in Germany with Joseph Joachim (1831-1907) the violin soloist and Bruch conducting the orchestra.

The third concerto has always been the orphan among Bruch's three, overshadowed by the ubiquitous First Concerto, Op. 26, and the more regularly performed Second Concerto, Op 44. Once every decade or so some violinist rediscovers the third and performs it; then it goes back to its non-repertoire slumbers for another long while. I myself revived it in the 1970s and performed it with the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. (I was told that Bruch's granddaughter had flown over from Germany for the occasion of the work's Baltimore premiere.) Indeed, the British commentator in Wikipedia describes this unjustly neglected work as "what must surely be Bruch's most ambitious, expansive and dramatic concerto." Shaw wished that more westenders who attended chamber music at St. James Hall would join their working-class contemporaries in Finsbury in attending these free Sunday concerts and contribute to the financial well-being of the new series.

Something must have gone right; for in 1969 Leslie Orrey published a book called The Story of 2000 Concerts, chronicling the first 82 years of the South Place Concerts. Then in 1987 came the 100th anniversary of the series also accompanied by a celebratory book, A Hundred Years of Chamber Music by Frank V. Hawkins, filled with photos and stories of all the chamber music groups who had been part of their series over the years. Finally came April 17, 2011 when I, as a visitor from America, finally caught up with the world's oldest continuously running chamber music series. My Americanness was appropriate, since the concerts have long taken place in Conway Hall in Red Lion Square, just near to the Holborn subway stop. Conway Hall, built in 1929, was named after the American transcendentalist Moncure Conway (1832-1907), prominent follower of Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-82) in the fields of freethought and religious freedom.

The South Place Ethical Society's progressive bent is underscored by a recently erected statue in Red Lion Square of the once-prominent Fabian, Fenner Brockway (1888-1988). Brockway's two autobiographical books, Inside the Left (1942) and Outside the Right (1963), are filled with choice anecdotes of the early Fabian days. The four-volume autobiographical series concluded with Towards Tomorrow (1977) and 98 Not Out (1986; the title is, of course, a cricketing term as a pun on the author's age.) OtR even includes a previously never-printed play by Shaw called Arthur and the Acetone, which concerns the proclamation of the Balfour Declaration during WWI and the establishment of a national home for the Jewish people in Palestine. The second act of this two-page brevity consists of only one scene containing only one line by Shaw himself. The seated Shaw, upon reading the news of the Balfour Declaration, says to the audience, "Good heavens, they've created another Ulster!" And certainly the continuous fighting in both Northern Ireland and Palestine for the next 80 years reaffirmed Shaw's usual prescience.

The concert that I heard at Conway Hall was presented by the Linden Trio, a group of young and highly talented London artists who performed works by Brahms (1833-97), Messaien (1908-92), and Shostakovitch (1906-75) in spectacular fashion.

It was time for operatic adventures. During my London stay I added four iconic venues to those I was visiting for the very first time. First came Wigmore and Conway Halls. Now it was time to visit the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden and then the Barbican Theater, a locale more modern and less traditional than the previous three. (Just outside Covent Garden is St. Paul's Church where the first characters in Shaw's Pygmalion (1914) take shelter from the rain. In honor of my favorite author I snapped a few shots.) I was adding to my list of the 15 Rimsky-Korsakov operas, of which I have now seen three. Most of these are seldom performed in the West so it takes a bit of sleuthing to discover their performances. I had tracked down The Golden Cockerel (Le Coq d'Or) (1907) in Oldenburg, Germany, a few seasons ago and Mozart and Salieri (1897) in New York, thanks to Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra at Avery Fisher Hall.

The opera at the Royal Opera House was The Tsar's Bride of 1898. TB is an opera in four acts whose plot is a kind of Cinderella story without the ball or the evil sisters, though it does display an evil mistress. Namely, Ivan The Terrible (1530-84) is seeking a bride among thousands of lovely contestants for the job and his favor falls on Marfa, the heroine of the opera. Marfa, however, is already pledged to her childhood sweetheart Ivan Likov as well as being pursued by her rejected suitor Gregory Gryiaznoy, a member of the Oprichniki, or secret police. Marfa's life is threatened by Gregory's spurned mistress, Lyubasha as well. As you might imagine, things are not to end happily.

This being an opera highly Italianate in plot, though taken from an older Russian play by Lev Alexandrovich Mei (1822-62), a love potion and a death potion are concocted and inadvertently interchanged thus leading to Marfa's demise. But not before she has been informed by Gryiaznoy that he has executed her sweetheart on the false grounds that it was Ivan who poisoned her. As in Donizetti's Lucia the loss of her true love causes Marfa's mind to snap and she launches into still another mad scene for soprano, albeit one less familiar than Donizetti's to western operagoers. In this mad scene, as in the one from Lucia, Marfa recalls in music those better days when the lovers pledged themselves to one another and the underlying music is Leitmotivic of that earlier scene. The harmonic turns Rimsky-Korsakov employs here are among the most beautiful parts of the opera.

The musical background of the opera is of course Russian nationalistic and folkloric in tone. The first act even features the famous Hymn to the Tsar as sung by the chorus, that tune used by both Beethoven in his Rasumovsky Quartet No. 2 (1806) and by Mussorgsky (1839-81) in Boris Godunov (1873). Besides the mad scene and the Tsar's hymn another striking moment occurs when mezzo soprano Lyubasha sings an unaccompanied song of lament over the loss of Griaznoy's love for her. This opera is post-Capriccio Espagnole (1887), Russian Easter Overture (1888), and Scheherazade (1888) and so the composer was already the master of the most sophisticated orchestral colors. Thus the overture and all the orchestral interludes in the opera are most colorful and piquant. An outstanding Russian cast was imported for the occasion and the opera was conducted by the British conductor, Mark Elder (1947-) who is the Music Director of the Halle Orchestra in Manchester. Three down, 12 to go.

Though not a speck of scenery was to be seen during the concert version of Claude Debussy's (1862-1918) Pelleas et Melisande (1902) at the Barbican Theatre the following evening, a sturdy surtitle board behind the onstage orchestra kept the audience fully abreast of the action (slow moving to be sure). The Orchestre de Paris was vigorously and sensitively conducted by Louis Langree. Other than a few unsatisfactory LP snippets over the years I had never had the chance to see or hear this landmark opera from beginning to end before. My biggest surprise was discovering that though having premiered in 1902 the work had been largely completed in the early 1890s, and despite continuous tinkering right up to the premiere, this opera, despite its harmonic originality, is basically a 19th-century work.

Another surprise, which had me involuntarily chuckling when I heard it, much to the annoyance of my surrounding opera attenders, was the music Debussy employed to illustrate the characters traveling through the midst of the woods. Despite the composer's oft-expressed disdain for his Bayreuth competitor, Richard Wagner (1813-83) the music that was to be heard from the orchestra was practically a note-for-note replaying of the Forest Murmurs from Siegfried (1876)! And since this is a seaside story there are countless previews of the composer's way of depicting the sea in his later La Mer (1905).

And speaking of my fellow audience members there were about 2800 of them, filling every available seat. No doubt they had been lured to this hall, as I had been, by the chance to see and hear present-day operatic superstars baritone Simon Keenlyside and soprano Natalie Dessay. Both lived up to their stellar reputations. Dessay surprised me by the voice she chose to portray Melisande, a voice delicate and high-pitched, befitting the character. I had just seen and heard Dessay at work in the Metropolitan Opera screening in America of Donizetti's Lucia a few days before. There the more sturdy and passionate voice she chose for Donizetti's Scottish/Italian heroine fit that bill equally well, not to mention her beautifully crafted and portrayed mad scene in the third act.

Keenlyside was wearing a sling on his left arm that thankfully had no impact on his strong vocal production as Pelleas, though it did get into the way when it came to signing autographs for the audience in the lobby afterwards. He left Natalie unaccompanied to work away at that job of fan gratification. (I garnered one myself.) I had had the pleasure of experiencing Keenlyside's portrayals on the Metropolitan Opera HD screens earlier in the season and in the previous season, once as Hamlet in Ambroise Thomas's (1811-96) opera of the same name (1868), (Langree had been the conductor for that as well), and once as Posa in Verdi's (1813-1901) Don Carlo (1867).

In the opera, Pelleas has been dispatched at the end of Act Four by the jealous husband Golaud and thus Keenlyside makes no further appearance. But that fourth act, with its constantly reiterated love yearning between the two protagonists, so passionately sung, shows that the composer had learned a little something from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde (1859). The final act, the death in bed of Melisande, unable to live without her love Pelleas, with its final quiet fadeaway is the opera's next most touching moment. Golaud's desperate attempts to get an admission of guilt from Melisande also give us great dramatic tension. No wonder the opera has always been so popular in France: the French appreciate great love stories.

While the plot does tend to move along slowly, and the musical idiom is usually quiet and laid back, various orchestral interludes do supply a good deal of symphonic excitement. This was another surprise for me. Debussy's ideal in composing this work was to create an opera stripped of romantic textual repetitions and reiterations and to simply accompany a rationalized play with music in which the characters express themselves as they do in real life conversations. (He frequently took Maeterlinck (1862-1949), the author of the play, to task, begging him to remove all of the original's poetic repetitions. Fortunately, Maeterlinck, who had no ear for music, graciously agreed.) The composer certainly succeeded! Most every modern opera since his day has followed this method, leading often as a result to nondescript, prosaic, recitative-like music to accompany the spoken lines of a story. Even as I watched Richard Strauss's Capriccio (1942) from the Met with Renee Fleming a few days later back in Texas, I couldn't help but observe that Strauss's way with a text was virtually the same as Debussy's. Of course, Strauss's opera is subtitled "A Conversation" so a realistic text was quite necessary.


ed. In the 5th paragraph, Vaughan Williams was mispelled (Vaughn). In the 7th paragraph, the composer Jean Françaix was mispelled ("Francais"). Corrections made on May 28, 2011.


To e-mail this article


· · · · · ·


If you find Isidor Saslav's work valuable, please consider helping us

· · · · · ·



Feel free to insert a link to this work on your Web site or to disseminate its URL on your favorite lists, quoting the first paragraph or providing a summary. However, DO NOT steal, scavenge, or repost this work on the Web or any electronic media. Inlining, mirroring, and framing are expressly prohibited. Pulp re-publishing is welcome -- please contact the publisher. This material is copyrighted, © Isidor Saslav 2011. All rights reserved.


Have your say

Do you wish to share your opinion? We invite your comments. E-mail the Editor. Please include your full name, address and phone number (the city, state/country where you reside is paramount information). When/if we publish your opinion we will only include your name, city, state, and country.


About the Author

Isidor Saslav on Swans -- with bio.   (back)


· · · · · ·


Internal Resources

The World of Music

Arts & Culture

· · · · · ·


This edition's other articles

Check the front page, where all current articles are listed.



Check our past editions, where the past remains very present.

· · · · · ·


[About]-[Past Issues]-[Archives]-[Resources]-[Copyright]



Swans -- ISSN: 1554-4915
URL for this work: http://www.swans.com/library/art17/saslav26.html
Published May 23, 2011