Ludwig van Toronto: Emotional Power and Bravura Performance in Tapestry Opera’s JACQUELINE

Written by Joseph So February 20, 2020

For devotees of the cello, few artists past or present capture the imagination quite like Jacqueline du Pré (1945-1987). In a performing career that lasted barely a decade before she was struck down by multiple sclerosis at the age of 28, du Pré left an indelible imprint on the musical world with her dazzling artistry and incandescent personality.

Arguably the work most associated with her was the Elgar Cello Concerto in E minor, Op. 85. I didn’t have the good fortune of hearing her live, but her recorded performances and interpretations of this work, both in the studio and in live performances, remain the gold standard. In the various video clips, one is struck by the radiant expression on her face, one that exudes the purest joy of music-making. The musical world is fortunate to have her art preserved for posterity.

Composed near the end of Elgar’s life, his cello concerto has an indescribable melancholia, an autumnal quality that one would think is unsuited to a young artist at the beginning of a career. Not so when it comes to Jacqueline du Pré — her ability to plumb the depths of this masterwork for its kernel of truth remains unparalleled. I am referring to both the studio recording with Sir John Barbirolli and the live recording with Barenboim. These are performances to honour and enjoy.

Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz in Tapestry Opera's Jacqueline (Photo : Dahlia Katz)
Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz in Tapestry Opera’s Jacqueline (Photo : Dahlia Katz)

Now 33 years after her death, du Pré is still very much in our consciousness. By a curious coincidence, two days separated two world premieres of works associated with du Pré. On Monday, February 17, a new ballet The Cellist by choreographer Cathy Marston premiered at the Royal Ballet Covent Garden in London to critical and audience acclaim.

Now two days later, a packed house at the Betty Oliphant Theatre witnessed Jacqueline, a new opera by composer Luna Pearl Woolf and librettist Royce Vavrek, under the auspices of Tapestry Opera. Like the cello concerto, the 90-minute piece is divided into four movements — “Star Birth,” “Super Nova,” “Meteorite,” and “Impact.” While it’s said that the opera is inspired by the concerto, the connection is not as deep as I had expected.

An intimate work, it’s performed by American soprano Marnie Breckenridge and cellist Matt Haimovitz. It explores the inner emotional world of du Pré, from the very beginning of her learning to play the cello, to near the end when MS has robbed her of her mobility. Through it all, the one constant is the cello, here personified by the brilliant playing and the physical presence of Matt Haimovitz. The staging is quite ingenious, with objects, an LP, a record player, a microphone, et cetera dropping from the ceiling at strategic points in the narrative. The chairs, representing an unseen audience, are orderly until the end, when the piece becomes chaotic, underscoring du Pre’s disintegrating world.

Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz in Tapestry Opera's Jacqueline (Photo : Dahlia Katz)
Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz in Tapestry Opera’s Jacqueline (Photo : Dahlia Katz)

One thing that surprised me was an intermission. My first thought was that it would work better for the flow of the drama if it were performed uninterrupted. Perhaps it would be true in an ideal world. But given the very demanding and lengthy vocal writing — especially in Movement III — for the soprano, plus the basically non-stop playing by Haimovitz, an intermission to give the two artists a bit of a rest is totally justified. It was quite a tour-de-force for both.

The work opened with some turbulent writing for the cello. Within seconds, I realized that it’s an unmistakable interpolation of the opening bars of the Elgar piece. Then for the rest of the 85-minute work, the musical language belonged entirely to the composer Luna Pearl Woolf. The Elgar concerto did not reappear until the very end, with almost the same quotation.

I admit that I tend towards tradition when it comes to new music. To my ears, new music tends to appeal to the intellect rather than to the heart. I am happy to say this is decidedly not the case here. Luna Pearl Woolf’s score is almost entirely tonal, lyrical, and most of all accessible, without sounding retrograde or heaven forbid, “old-fashioned.” To my ears, Woolf’s musical idiom suits the drama well. It should be mentioned that the narrative is non-linear but well executed to avoid any confusion.

Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz in Tapestry Opera's Jacqueline (Photo : Dahlia Katz)
Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz in Tapestry Opera’s Jacqueline (Photo : Dahlia Katz)

The musical structure is quite conventional — yes, there are even arias! Two in Movement III. One that’s particularly touching is a lament, with du Pré telling her mum that she’s lonely and asking her to visit. The musical line brings out fully the vulnerability of the character. When du Pré rails against God for having her suffer this dreaded disease, the music takes on a more atonal and angular quality, although I thought a bit more fire and brimstone would be in order here. That said, kudos to Woolf for her beautiful musical idiom and her brilliant execution.

Congratulations also to librettist Royce Vavrek for capturing the essence of the du Pré persona. There’s plenty of funny parts early on, showing off du Pré’s droll sense of humour, with an abundance of vocal glissandi to go with that from the cello. When the narrative turns serious, so does the music. If I were to quibble, Breckenridge’s British accent is good without being idiomatic. The vocal writing for her is very demanding, one that pushes at the upper extreme of her range. But the singer is up to the task, offering a full range of tone colours, including an impressive pianissimo.

All this is possible because the cello is the only constant in her life, here anthropomorphized as Matt Haimovitz. It is her foil, her rock, and her salvation. Haimovitz the cellist was exemplary, and it was great that Woolf composed an extended solo for him, which he played beautifully. There were pre-recorded passages for the cello, giving it a fuller sound and a more variety of tone colours. At the end of Movement IV, the Elgar quotation reappeared. When the cello played that ascending line to the point when the orchestra is supposed to come in, it stopped abruptly. The light dimmed and then the stage went dark. A life interrupted. A perfect, moving end to an evocative work.


All photographs by Dahlia Katz.

Read the original at ludwig van TORONTO.

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Opera Going Toronto reviews WOOLF’s JACQUELINE

Written by Ian Ritchie February 2020

Jacqueline du Pré, legendary golden-haired young cellist, unrivalled heir apparent to Casals and Rostropovich, inhabited a life transformed by multiple narrators after her death in 1987 into an almost mythical saga. A relentless surge of rumours and anecdotes still swirls around her memory. Stories of locked practice rooms from childhood. Of utter nervelessness as a fearless teenage prodigy on show at the Royal Festival Hall. Of her alleged feverish affair with sister Hilary’s husband. Of her willing surrender to her own husband, conductor Daniel Barenboim’s taxing, single-minded plans for her spectacular latter day career.

Almost five decades after forced to abandon the world of performance, a cruel, agonizing decision imposed by the relentless progress of Multiple Sclerosis shockingly diagnosed at the age of twenty-eight, fascination with Du Pré’s legacy has continued to peak with each passing decade. Two books, one by Hilary and brother Piers later adapted to film, the still controversial biopic, “Hilary and Jackie”; a West End play, “Duet for One”; plus a new upcoming ballet, “The Cellist”, currently in development by London’s Royal Ballet, have, if not spawned, then certainly solidified Jacqueline du Pré’s status as an enduring 20th century classical icon. Her music and spirit live on both in recordings and streaming video, her playing a passionate denial of all that is mortal and evanescent, her presence dazzlingly resurrected on the World Wide Web.

And now comes an opera, a brilliant, wrenching chamber work by Montreal-based composer Luna Pearl Woolf, libretto by Alberta-born Brooklynite Royce Vavrek. World premiered by Toronto’s Tapestry Opera last Wednesday at the intimate Betty Oliphant Theatre, director/dramaturge Michael Hidetoshi Mori flings us headfirst body and soul into the centre of towering virtuosity and pain that was and always will be du Pré.

Presented as a series of compact black-out scenes witnessed in four discrete “movements”, a writerly nod, albeit oblique, to a du Pré signature piece, Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Op. 85, Jacqueline electrifies, showcasing a series of vibrant sketches witnessed in contrasting shades of sorrow and joy. If formal story structure is allowed to slip inevitably in and out of the spotlight here, high drama never occupies anything less than centre stage.

Movement I: Flashing backwards in time and place Jacqueline, still optimistic despite the onset of a mysterious debilitating medical condition, recalls a more carefree time in her life. The appearance of her first cello. Her crisp declaration to a disapproving producer at an early recording session — “I will play as I feel. I will take all the liberties. This will be the du Pré edition.” Her first encounter with Daniel. “We consummated our love by playing Brahms.” Her conversion to Judaism and marriage at Jerusalem’s sacred Western Wall.

Movement II: Gathering apprehension. Alarmed by a preliminary assessment of her illness as psychologically induced, du Pré buries herself in her frantic schedule, a dizzying round of concert tours and cocktail parties. “With the cello I am Samson,” she exalts. “No mortal can best me.” A disastrous performance rekindles worry.

Movement III: A telephone call to Jacqueline’s mother. Feelings of loneliness and abandonment overwhelm. Her cello, repeatedly referenced as inseperable creative partner in preceding scenes, assumes an even more urgent presence in her life. “I have a disease,” she confesses to Mon ami, “to which you reply. ‘I know.’” Medical sentence is pronounced. Memory of childhood yields no escape. Running through a field of wildflowers with Hilary. The bitter reality of a recent fall. MS robs her of hope. Rage and terror engulf her.

Movement IV: The cello grieves. Jacqueline struggles to survive. A record player descends from above. An LP begins to spin. The Elgar concerto is heard. The Cello plays on. Sudden darkness silences the final note.

Soprano Marnie Breckenridge as Jacqueline tears at the heart, contributing a sweeping portrayal of the obsessed, supremely gifted du Pré, deeply disturbing in scenes of suffering, playful and flippant in moments of repose. Singing with great purity and directness, Breckenridge enthralls, brittle and silvery, bitter and humane. “I am the hussy straddling the Strad,” her character exalts. “Wild and ferocious.” The truth, as revealed in this fine, affecting performance is as rich and resonant as du Pré herself inevitably revealed on stage.

Cellist Matt Haimovitz inhabits Mon ami personifying du Pré’s cherished instrument with great command, instantly absorbing our attention. This is a conceit of immense force and originality and Haimovitz invests it with an endless abundance of presence, a masterclass in method, animated yet inanimate, his voice, The Cello’s voice, vibrating with expression. Woolf’s music, heavily reliant on complex chord progressions and laser-sharp shifts of rhythm and tonality, sits well with Haimovitz’s relentless attack and palpable physicality. To see and hear him calmly blazing his way through the composer’s blistering, harmonically superheated score, bow flashing, fingers flying up and down his cello’s neckpiece is to witness nothing less than sheer genius at work. His extended Act IV solos, a lengthy fitful intermezzo by Woolf filled with tears and grief and the Elgar, written at the end of World War I, a reaching out for healing, are delivered with an inexpressible depth of feeling and humanity.

“Jacqueline” is a profoundly moving opera, one that shreds the emotions, glowingly performed with strong, highly polished production values. The set by designer Camellia Koo is as simple as it is poignant, a shattered concert hall, empty chairs and scattered music stands flung into the air, suspended in limbo, frozen in time.

A 40th anniversary offering, this powerful, supremely resourceful Tapestry Opera production lingers long in memory. Jacqueline du Pré is masterfully well served.


Read the original at operagoingtoronto.

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SCHMOPERA reviews WOOLF’s JACQUELINE: COME FOR THE MUSIC, STAY FOR EVERYTHING ELSE

Jacqueline: Come for the music, stay for everything else

Written by Michael Zarathus-Cook February 23, 2020

Tapestry Opera continues their 40th anniversary season with Jacqueline, a commission for Canadian librettist Royce Vavrek and American composer Luna Pearl Woolf; the end result, directed by Tapestry Artistic Director Michael Mori, is something of a living retrospective of the life and times—and plight—of seminal cellist Jacquelin du Pré. A living retrospective because one-half of the two-person show is cellist Matt Haimovitz, who in his teens enjoyed a relationship with an ailing du Pré, at the invitation of her husband and music partner Daniel Barenboim. His presence on stage and behind his instrument added a silent narrative to the work, adding equal parts gravitas and relatability. There’s an ambiguous line of separation between his performance from the fact of the personal memories he was sharing through music.

Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz in Jacqueline, Tapestry Opera, 2020. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

That ambiguity, however, does a net good because of the attention commanded by soprano Marnie Breckenridge’s performance. So dominant is her stage presence that the work at times felt like a one-woman show, with Haimovitz’s accompaniment being a source of contrast and depth. Likewise, there is so much music for the cello part that it at times felt like a three-person show, if you count the cello.

It is a laborious instrument, requiring full-body composure and, among particularly expressive cellists, is seemingly fretted by dramatic eyebrow scrunching.

In a biopic about his childhood in Liverpool, British director Terence Davies relied entirely on music, going as far as saying that “in memory everything happens to music”, in that sense does one expect an embarrassment of riches when those memories are of the life of a musician—and Woolf makes the most of this special case. Jacqueline is a concatenation of memories, and despite Breckenridge’s precision in evocative dramatization, and the eye-level surtitles to dispel the spectre of misheard lyrics, it’s nevertheless difficult to locate the age and corresponding psyche of her Jacqueline throughout. The only clear divides are between health and sickness, her samsonian vigour and the disconsolation at the onset of the usual symptoms of her Multiple Sclerosis diagnosis. The music, however, is a constant, evocative of a mature and brazen Jacqueline, the cradle of the seriousness and depth of her feeling that the libretto at times fumbles. As far as expressing the spectrum of du Pré’s obsession with her instrument—from an adolescent enchanted by its contours to a woman confident no one would ever play it as well as her—Vavrek could not have written a better part for Breckenridge’s more than convincing delivery.

Marnie Breckenridge in Jacqueline, Tapestry Opera, 2020. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

Du Pré was diagnosed with MS at the age of 26, and succumbed to it at 42. That’s 16 years of the slow-burning disintegration of her physical and psychological constitution, almost as long as all she’s known of health and the promises of her solar career. Fitting that incomprehensible contrast into the span of ninety minutes is the challenge Vavrek’s libretto rises to, though it at times rings like the echo chambers of one of Sylvia Plath’s confessionals. But when it works, it works because of the vividity of its metaphors and its reluctance to be swept up in either rage, despair, or a lukewarm self-pity. This portrait is that of several Jacquelines all vying to be remembered: a talented cellist, a devout wife, an amateur comedian, and a avid subscriber to the power of music and vinyl records.

The opera provides two alternative voices to reveal the complexities of du Pré’s personhood; music written for the voice in a way reveals her public personality, along with hear-say gathered from relationships and journals, while music written for the cello presents a quieter inner voice, the private room of her spiritual thoughts. To that end, Breckenridge delivers a virtuosic performance, landing the occasionally hair-raising note. Haimovitz’s performance is similarly virtuosic, playing intermittently as accompaniment for voice as well as in direct dialogue with Breckenridge.

Matt Haimovitz in Jacqueline, Tapestry Opera, 2020. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

In a sense his cello, known as a “tenor” instrument, provides a counterpart to Brekenridge’s soprano for a robust operatic experience. And for that reason do I think the use of audio recordings in addition to Haimovitz’s performance takes away more than it adds, interrupting the sense of here-ness and presence the show enjoyed for the majority of it’s duration—especially when the contrast between the richness cello’s sound quality and that of the recording is fairly obvious.

This is a production that knows how to make a lot out of a little.

This work is also a celebration of the instrument, as much as spotlight as the cello can get for nearly ninety minutes of non-stop playing—praise be to Woolf for letting the music evolve and maneuver as much as the libretto. It also provides a bit of insurance, for the sake of those who are only peripherally familiar with the life and times of du Pré, one learns of her here through the unique obsession cellists can have with their instrument. We live now in a new generation of international cellists like Sheku Kanneh-Mason (who is the new face of the Elgar Cello Concerto that launched du Pré), French star Camille Thomas and precocious Instagram proteges like @cellodude06—the instrument has found another round of devotees at a world class level, all similarly enticed by the full-body embrace of its lacquered torso. It is a laborious instrument, requiring full-body composure and, among particularly expressive cellists, is seemingly fretted by dramatic eyebrow scrunching. What is unique of its sound is the range of its expression, and Woolf utilizes the fullness of this spectrum to keep pace and accentuate everything happening for voice, evoking Jacqueline’s disconsolation with a steady supply of craggy figuration.

Marnie Breckenridge in Jacqueline, Tapestry Opera, 2020. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

The libretto does a good job of keeping the work personal, not venturing too far into the metaphorization of her illness, save for an oddly placed but well landed joke about teenage monks forced to watch exotic dancing as a final test of their asceticism. Then there’s the recurring motif of Samson from the bible, “For I am Samson, heady, hale and invincible,” a reference to du Pré’s famous blonde mane, as well as the strength she feels at the command of her instrument. A clever metaphorical instrument, but I feel an opportunity was missed here to find a female version of Samson, real or fictional, to make the point.

Marnie Breckenridge and Matt Haimovitz in Jacqueline, Tapestry Opera, 2020. Photo: Dahlia Katz.

The set (designed by Camellia Koo) is fairly unimaginative, but it does a great job of evoking a sense of variety while using many of the same props—a clever solution to filling the Betty Oliphant Theatre stage with just two bodies. The lighting design (Bonnie Beecher) too contributes significantly to the intimacy that the show never lost, keeping our attention in the fore-most front of the stage while maintaining a sense of depth with the dynamic pieces of the set in the background. All in all, this is a production that knows how to make a lot out of a little, a feat owed to Breckenridge’s prowess and Haimovitz’s facility; and, crucially, it never loses its focus on the centrality of the music.

So yes: go for the music, stay for everything else.


Read the original at Schmopera.

Photos by Dahlia Katz

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The Whole Note: Luna Pearl Woolf’s FIRE and FLOOD

Written by DAVID OLDS JANUARY 27, 2020

This month Tapestry presents the world premiere of American composer Luna Pearl Woolf’s latest opera, Jacqueline. Coinciding with this is the Pentatone release of Woolf’s Fire and Flood on the Oxingale label (PTC5186803 naxosdirect.com). This striking vocal disc features mostly recent works for a cappella choir (the Choir of Trinity Wall Street under the direction of Julian Wachner) with soloists in several instances and, in the most memorable selection, Après moi, le déluge, obbligato cello (Matt Haimovitz). After a virtuosic cello cadenza, this work develops into a bluesy and occasionally meditative telling of the story of Noah and the Flood which culminates in the gospel-tinged LordI’m goin’ down in Louisiana before gently subsiding. After a rousing arrangement of Leonard Cohen’s Everybody Knows for vocal trio and cello, comes a modern-sounding but fairly tonal Missa in Fines Orbis Terrae with the choir accompanied by Messiaen-like organ (Avi Stein). The vocal trio (sopranos Devon Guthrie and Nancy Anderson with mezzo Elise Quagliata) return for One to One to One, in this instance accompanied by the low strings (three cellos and three basses) of NOVUS NY. Having begun with the close harmonies, murmurs, shouts and extended vocal techniques of the a cappella To the Fire with full choir, the disc ends with the vocal trio once again joined by Haimovitz for a raucous setting of Cohen’s Who by Fire to close out an exceptional disc. A wonderful cross-section of Woolf’s vocal writing that bodes well for the new opera.

Read the original at Schmopera.

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Six Preludes

By Lewis Spratlan | For Solo Piano| ~19′

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Six Rags

By Lewis Spratlan | For Solo Piano| 17′

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Lewis Spratlan’s Bangladesh featured on Grammy winning album The Poetry of Places

We are excited to announce that Lewis Spratlan’s, Bangladesh, is one of the world premiere recordings featured on Nadia Shpachenko’s album The Poetry of Places, which was bestowed with the 2020 Grammy Award for Best Classical Compendium. Victor and Marina Ledin, were also honored with a nomination for Classical Producer of the Year. The album, which was envisioned as a sonic tour of iconic global architecture using the piano, voice, electronics, and percussion, showcases Ms. Shpachenko in ten new music pieces.

“It’s so thrilling to hear one’s music totally understood and projected, but, moreover, to hear the flowering of ideas that only occurs when the performer expands on the given and invests it with her own life experience and art. I’m forever grateful for this wonderful recording of Bangladesh.”

Lewis Spratlan

Lewis Spratlan’s contribution, Bangladesh, is inspired by the National Assembly Buildings in Dhaka, Bangladesh. This brick and concrete building was designed by world famous architect Louis Kahn. In five movements, the piece includes the water, concrete, vapor, local melodies, and workers of the building scurrying about at different phases of its construction. Spratlan, who dedicated Bangladesh to Ms. Shpachenko, created pitch centers for the music. Water is drawn to the pitch of C, the Bangladeshi people to the pitch of F#, and buildings to F and G.

This is not Lewis Spratlan’s first foray into architectural compositions, or even Louis Kahn. His opera Architect, created with Jenny Kallick and John Downey, is a dramatization of Kahn’s personal and professional life.

Congratulations to Nadia, Victor, Marina, and Lew!

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Too Many Vodka Tonics

By Luna Pearl Woolf | For String Quartet | 5′

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To the Fire

By Luna Pearl Woolf | For 6 male voices or AATBBB choir | 13′

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Traum Durch die Dämmerung

By Luna Pearl Woolf | For Soprano and Piano| 5′

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One to One to One

By Luna Pearl Woolf | For 3 Female Voices, 3 Cellos, 3 Basses| 15′

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Lili’uokalani for Solo Cello

By Luna Pearl Woolf | For Solo Cello| 10′

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Unspoken Words

By Lewis Spratlan | For SATB Choir and Trombone|10′

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Charlottesville: Summer of 2017

By Lewis Spratlan | For Chamber Ensemble| ~20′

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New England Concordance

By Lewis Spratlan | For TTBB Choir and Piano| 9′

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Chamber Symphony

By Lewis Spratlan | For Chamber Orchestra| 30′

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Impromptu for Solo Viola

By Luna Pearl Woolf | For Solo Viola | 7′

“…extended contrapuntal play…” for the viola

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Midi

 

Midi (Medea) is a native singer in the bar of a hotel/brothel in a city in the French Antilles, c. 1930. She is also a sorceress, a descendant of the Sun himself, loved and feared on the island. She lives with a dubious American “businessman,” Jaz, who cheats on her and beats her. She could destroy him with her magic, but, loving him, she is helpless.

By Lewis Spratlan | An Opera in Two Acts | 86′

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Arpeggione for Cello and String Orchestra

By Luna Pearl Woolf | For Solo Cello and String Orchestra| 26′ Continue reading

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Missa in Fine Orbis Terrae

By Luna Pearl Woolf | For Choir and Organ | 11′

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