Yale Opera’s production of “The Magic Flute” asks what it means to be human

Dustin Wills

Theater director Dustin Wills, a 2014 graduate of the Yale School of Drama, says there is a reckoning happening in his industry, an accountability for what one is putting on stage and what that work has to say socially and politically. “That’s where I’m coming from,” he said recently, during rehearsals for Yale Opera’s new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute, which he is directing. The 1791 opera, a Singspiel, was Mozart’s last. It added punctuation to his life and to an Age of Reason that was giving way to Romanticism. The story of The Magic Flute, crafted by librettist Emanuel Schikaneder, explored and celebrated Enlightenment ideals, the flaws of which, Wills pointed out, we are dealing with today. A movement that was born of goodwill, Wills said, forgot those who were not white, male European landowners.

“It would be irresponsible for me to allow this opera to happen in a vacuum,” Wills said. And while he can’t change the libretto, he has used the work as a vehicle for revisiting the original inquiry. “What is our modern-day equivalent of this movement?” he asked. Male-focused heroism, for one thing, is “really old nonsense,” Wills said, mentioning his own struggles with playing roles steeped in male stereotypes. With that in mind, he has reframed the focus—which Schikaneder trained on Tamino—to equally include Pamina. Wills’ fundamental inquiry is: What does it mean to be human?

The answer, to Wills, can be found, in part, in our relationship with artificial intelligence. “AI today is the exact same experiment,” he said, revisiting Enlightenment-period themes of egalitarianism and individualism. “You have to really investigate what a human is. In Saudi Arabia, they gave citizenship to a robot.” Wills’ turn directing The Magic Flute brings up the same moral questions that 18th century philosophers and artists were asking in their time. And that, he believes, is part of the responsibility of the artist who is faced with staying true to a piece of work while bringing it into a modern-day context without going too far. “If we’re not making attempts to find that line,” Wills said, “I don’t know how much of an audience in the future there’s going to be.” In other words, “How do you reconcile these beautiful, amazing old works with politics that are potentially very harmful and triggering today?”

The goal, he said, “is really to be absolutely more inclusive, to try to open the door wider to more people.” This production, he explained, gives us the opportunity to take a break from the chaos around us and also leaves us with questions to ask ourselves and one another. It is his job, he said, to push members of an audience beyond their comfort zones. “The artists are the ones who’re up all night thinking about the future,” he said.

It’s not all about angst, though. “We rehearse from a place of joy at all times,” he said, “because that’s what’s at the center of this thing.”

Soprano Anush Avetisyan ’18MM, who is sharing the role of Pamina with soprano Sylvia D’Eramo ’18MM, said, “It has truly been a joy working with Dustin on this production of The Magic Flute. What I have noticed and really appreciated is Dustin’s commitment to the work at hand. His vision and personality are rare in this world and I am grateful for them every day of rehearsal.”

Yale Opera presents a new production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Shubert Theatre Feb. 16-18.

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DUSTIN WILLS

Published February 9, 2018
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Wayne Escoffery Quintet featuring Jeremy Pelt to perform unheard music by Lee Morgan

Wayne Escoffery

Asked about the influence that Lee Morgan has had on him, Grammy Award-winning faculty saxophonist Wayne Escoffery said, “As a young man, his music really caught my ear,” specifically because it combined styles. “One of the traits of Lee Morgan and one of the inspirational things about his music,” Escoffery said, is that it “was really a great fusion of a lot of the modern elements” of the music of the early-to-mid 1960s “with a lot of the soulful and groove-oriented elements” of the time.

On Friday, Feb. 2, Escoffery and his quintet — featuring trumpeter Jeremy Pelt — will present “Delightfulee Morgan,” a program of music by the late, legendary trumpeter and composer Lee Morgan. The program’s title comes from Morgan’s 1966 Blue Note album, Delightfulee. The concert will showcase compositions by Morgan that are seldom heard and, in some cases, unrecorded.

It was after being approached by jazz historian and archivist Bertrand Uberall, who’d come across a trove of Morgan’s unheard music at the Library of Congress, that Escoffery began conceiving what would become the Feb. 2 Ellington Jazz Series program. That process began with finding a trumpeter who he felt could uniquely serve Morgan’s music. Enter Pelt.

“Jeremy and I go way back to college days,” Escoffery said, explaining that when he was a graduate student at the New England Conservatory, Pelt was a student at the Berklee College of Music. Pelt, he said, has long been a student of Morgan’s music. There “could not be a better choice” than Pelt to present Morgan’s music, Uberall offered.

Uberall said there’s “no reason to believe [Morgan] ever performed” this music, the rights to which are held by Kiko Morgan, to whom the celebrated trumpeter was married but estranged from at the time of his death. Kiko Morgan gave Uberall permission to have the music performed.

Morgan recorded and performed with the likes of such iconic artists as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey and was a prolific composer with his own impressive discography. He was shot and killed in 1972 by his common-law wife, Helen Moore, who’d rescued him from drugs and helped resurrect his suffering career. That story is recounted Kasper Collin’s 2016 documentary I Called Him Morgan, which Escoffery pointed out brings to life the 1960s jazz scene in New York — particularly the feeling and the energy surrounding Slugs’ Saloon. “That musical atmosphere was really inspiring to me,” Escoffery said.

Escoffery’s Feb. 2 program “Delightfulee Morgan” will celebrate an artist whose music and inimitable performances have long inspired many. Uberall is expected to deliver remarks about Lee Morgan from the stage, and two of Morgan’s nephews are expected to be on hand.

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WAYNE ESCOFFERY

Published January 30, 2018
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YSM alumni take home Grammy Awards

The National’s “Sleep Well Beast”

Several Yale School of Music alumni won Grammy Awards on Sunday, Jan. 28. Please join us in congratulating the following musicians on this exciting accomplishment.

Guitarist Bryce Dessner ’99MM won as a member of The National, whose album Sleep Well Beast won in the “Best Alternative Music Album” category.

Saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom ’77MM earned an award as a surround producer in the “Best Surround Sound Album” category for her Early Americans.

Violinists Irene Cheng ’94MM and Louis Lev ’90MM and trombonist Rebecca Cherian ’81MM won as members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in the “Best Orchestral Performance” category for the ensemble’s recording of Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 and Barber’s Adagio for Strings. For that recording, which was engineered by Mark Donahue, the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra also won in the “Best Engineered Album, Classical” category.

Violinists Maureen Nelson ’00MM and Kayla Moffett ’13MM and cellist Joshua Koestenbaum ’80MM won as members of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra in the “Best Chamber Music/Small Ensemble Performance” category for the ensemble’s Death and the Maiden album, which features music by Dowland, Gesualdo, Kurtág, Normiger, and Schubert.

Published January 29, 2018
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Violist Josip Kvetek ’18MM, on being a soloist with an orchestra of his peers

Josip Kvetek ’18MM

When violist Josip Kvetek ’18MM played Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola on a recital here at YSM last year, it wasn’t with an eye on performing the piece with the Yale Philharmonia, which he’ll do on Friday, Jan. 26. “It’s not very serious music,” Kvetek said, explaining that the Paganini sonata is a fun piece of music, a quirky sonata that just happens to be, in the words of principal conductor Peter Oundjian, “probably the most difficult piece ever written for viola.” After Kvetek’s recital performance last year, his teacher, Ettore Causa, suggested that he enter the Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition, which Kvetek won in April 2017.

The sonata, Kvetek said, is “not standard repertoire for viola.” Paganini, he explained, “commissioned a piece from Berlioz” to be played on a five-string viola. Berlioz, in response, composed Harold in Italy, an orchestral piece with viola solos. “Paganini didn’t like the first draft of the piece,” Kvetek said, “so he decided to write his own piece.” The result is “a sonata for solo instrument and orchestra, which is very odd.”

Kvetek will perform the piece on a standard viola, an instrument without an added E string, which means “I have to play with an improvised thumb position” to execute passages in the instrument’s upper register. In terms of interpretation, Kvetek said, “it’s very simple, harmonically and melodically. It’s just simple from every angle.” Still, it’s a piece that can easily feel like blocks of virtuoso passages arranged without much cohesion. “It starts becoming 50 little tasks,” Kvetek said, “and not one, coherent story. The part that helps with that is it’s very operatic. It’s much easier if you let go of the classical way of thinking.”

Now in the second year of YSM’s master of music degree program, studying with Causa, and with Steven Tenenbom while Causa is on sabbatical, Kvetek has done his share of playing with the Yale Philharmonia as a member of the orchestra’s viola section. On Jan. 26, he’ll be out front, next to guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who’ll lead a program that also includes Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version) and Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Performing as the soloist with an orchestra of his peers is “a little bit more stressful,” Kvetek said, “because you do know all the people. The benefit is that they’re very supportive and very helpful in the process. Everybody is hoping or cheering that you play the best you can. It becomes much easier to play in that environment.” The stress, he said, comes from wanting “to present yourself well” in front of one’s peers.

Given the operatic nature of the Paganini sonata, Kvetek said, “The majority of it is on me to deliver a performance that other people can follow.” Part of that responsibility, to be sure, falls on Solzhenitsyn, with whom Kvetek hasn’t worked. Basing his impressions on YouTube videos, Kvetek described Solzhenitsyn as an expressive conductor, which “will help me connect with the orchestra and will help bring this piece together.” Because there’s no “prescribed way of how you perform” the Paganini, Kvetek said, “It’s up to me to play it just the way I want to play it.”

On Friday, Jan. 26, guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn leads the Yale Philharmonia in a program that includes Stravinsky’s spellbinding Firebird Suite (1919 version), Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola, with 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Josip Kvetek ’18MM, and Franck’s inventive and affecting Symphony in D minor.

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Published January 18, 2018
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Ignat Solzhenitsyn, on “Firebird” and working with young musicians

Ignat Solzhenitsyn

Principal conductor Peter Oundjian has said that guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn, who’ll lead the Yale Philharmonia in a performance of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite (1919 version, from the composer’s ballet score) on Friday, Jan. 26, “particularly wanted to do this piece with our students.” Solzhenitsyn recently pointed out that it’s “one of the very, very greatest orchestral paintings in our repertoire and a piece that, of course, is predicated upon the limitlessness of imagination.” Imagination, Solzhenitsyn said, is most fertile and open to influence during one’s youth. The Firebird Suite “is really a piece that, more than anything, is for young people,” he said. “It will showcase the Yale Philharmonia to beautiful effect.” The orchestra, in turn, will provide a capable vehicle for the stuff of Stravinsky’s imagination — and for the Russian legend that the composer explored — which will no doubt inspire the Woolsey Hall audience, just as it has long captivated audiences around the world.

With Solzhenitsyn, who serves as principal guest conductor of the Moscow Symphony Orchestra and conductor laureate of the Chamber Orchestra of Philadelphia, the Yale Philharmonia will also perform Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola, with 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Josip Kvetek ’18MM, and Franck’s Symphony in D minor. Kvetek recently said that the Paganini is “not standard repertoire for the viola,” and that while it’s “very simple, harmonically and melodically,” it’s not a piece that on its own tells “one coherent story.”

“The part that helps with that,” Kvetek said, “is it’s very operatic.” Kvetek “nailed it,” Solzhenitsyn agreed, saying the Paganini is a show piece, one that’s very difficult for the soloist. What makes it fun, Solzhenitsyn said, is the very notion that Paganini, a virtuoso violinist, produced such a piece for the viola. “Charm, wit, teasing, easy grace — those kind of words inform this work,” he said.

Asked about the Franck being a piece that’s gone in and out of favor with orchestras, Solzhenitsyn bristled. “It’s a concept I still have trouble wrapping my head around,” he said, pointing to the obvious fact that “the intrinsic worth of ‘X’ has nothing to do with if it’s popular or not, or has very little to do with it.” He’s among those who don’t understand why the Franck symphony is not performed more frequently, give that it is, undeniably, a “touchstone of the Romantic symphonic repertoire.”

“The beauty, the power, the innocence, the honesty of this music, I think, speaks for itself,” Solzhenitsyn said.

Seeing Solzhenitsyn on the podium will be a new experience for members of the Philharmonia. And working with Yale students, for Solzhenitsyn, will present a different opportunity than the experiences he’s had leading ensembles of more seasoned musicians. A collective sense of wonder and discovery that is at times diminished in a professional ensemble, he said, is right there, in all its glory, for everyone to see in a young ensemble.

On Friday, Jan. 26, guest conductor Ignat Solzhenitsyn leads the Yale Philharmonia in a program that includes Stravinsky’s spellbinding Firebird Suite (1919 version), Paganini’s Sonata per la Grand Viola, with 2017 Woolsey Hall Concerto Competition winner Josip Kvetek ’18MM, and Franck’s inventive and affecting Symphony in D minor.

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Published January 17, 2018
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Pianist Szymon Nehring wins Harvard Musical Association’s Foote Award

Szymon Nehring

Pianist and current School of Music artist diploma candidate Szymon Nehring has won the Harvard Musical Association’s 2018 Arthur W. Foote Award, which is presented “to instrumentalists of the highest musical caliber of university or conservatory level who are about to launch professional careers,” according to language on the association’s website. Nehring will perform at a private event for association members and their guests on Feb. 2 in Boston.

Nehring “was clearly the consensus” winner among jury members this year, John Anthony Schemmer, the chairman and vice president of the HMA, said. “He’s still very young, but he has already a very decided personality of his own and he has the ability to draw in and engage the audience.”

Violinist and current YSM artist diploma candidate Sirena Huang and organist David Simon ’17MM, who is pursuing his doctorate at the School of Music (and studying at the Institute of Sacred Music), also inspired members of the Foote Award jury. They “made very favorable and distinguished impressions on us,” Schemmer said.

Previous Foote Award winners from YSM include organist Paul Jacobs ’02MM ’03AD (2003) and pianists Ryo Yanagitani ’04MM ’05AD ’08MMA and Henry Kramer ’13AD ’15MMA (2005 and 2014, respectively). Schemmer, who graduated from Yale College in 1968 with a degree in music theory and composition, said the School of Music’s “profile has been rising for several decades,” and that YSM’s students are “absolutely superb.”

Nehring is the latest to reflect that assessment. Upon reviewing Nehring’s recorded performances, one jury member said “he had the audience engaged before he began playing,” according to Schemmer, who, in turn, said that Nehring “is prepared with these pieces in the most extraordinary way.”

Nehring, who studies at the School of Music with Boris Berman, arrived at Yale in fall 2017 having won the prestigious Arthur Rubinstein International Piano Master Competition in Tel Aviv, Israel, in May. In October, Nehring was named the Personality of the Year as part of the 2017 Polish Music Coryphaeus Awards and was honored that month alongside other award recipients in Warsaw, Poland. Before enrolling at YSM, he studied with Stefan Wojtas at the Academy of Music in Bydgoszcz, Poland.

The Harvard Musical Association was founded by Harvard alumni in 1837 but is not affiliated with that university.

SZYMON NEHRING

Published January 11, 2018
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