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Rockport Music Tributes to Wagner and Verdi


Wagner by C. Willich
Wagner by C. Willich

In a year full of celebrations for the 200th anniversary of the birth of opera composers Richard Wagner and Giuseppe Verdi, the Rockport Chamber Music Festival is offering a unique celebration this Thursday and Friday that stands apart from the rest by presenting a selection chamber works from these composers, offering, in the words of Artistic Director David Deveau, the “…audience a side of each giant rarely encountered.”

On Thursday, the concert “Wagner at 200 (and Bruckner at 189),” features a program of works that Wagner dedicated to two important and controversial women in his life, Mathilde Wesendonck and Cosima Wagner.  

Wesendonck was a poet, author and wife of a wealthy silk merchant who supported Wagner in Zurich. While a sexual relationship has never been proven, existing correspondence does reveal a certain affection between the composer and the poet. Similarly, this affection is reflected in the Piano Sonata in A-flat Major, an album piece that Wagner wrote for Wesendonck in 1853 and which remains an unpretentious yet heartfelt document of their intimacy. It will be performed on Thursday by New England Conservatory CPP fellow Cristian Budu.

Next is the Wesendonck Lieder, a song cycle in which Wagner set five of Wesendonck’s poems.  He wrote these works even as he composed Tristan und Isolde and they share the same advanced chromatic language—indeed, he even added the subtitle “Studie zu Triantan und Isolde to the third song “Im Treibhous” and the fifth song “Träume,” the latter of which Wagner later arranged for chamber orchestra and had it performed beneath Wesendonck’s window on her birthday. In Rockport, these songs will be sung by emerging Irish Soprano Naomi O’Connell (here) who will be accompanied by Keun-A Lee on Piano.

Soprano Naomi O’Connell (file photo)
Soprano Naomi O’Connell (file photo)

The Siegried Idyll is a symphonic poem that Wagner composed as a birthday present to his second wife Cosima after the birth of their son Siegfried. This work he had performed at the base of their stairway in their house on Christmas morning (Cosima’s birthday) in 1870. The work contains several themes from Wagner’s later dramas, including the one given to Brünhilde at the end of Siegfried. This work will be performed, in an arrangement for two pianos by Otto Singer, by brothers George (17) and Andrew (13) Li. Notably, in recent months, George Li has exploded onto the Boston concert scene (see here and here), this might be the last opportunity to see him perform in such an intimate setting.

Thursday’s concert closes with Anton Bruckner’s String Quintet in F major which premiered in 1881 in Vienna. In its reception, critics have (wrongly I think) characterized the work as too symphonic for five string instruments. While in the last movement the symphonist in Bruckner does emerge, overall the work contains a not insignificant Viennese character, sentimental and almost saccharine, a remnant of Viennese classicism recast in late 19th century harmonic language.

On Friday the concert “Viva Verdi” opens with Verdi’s rarely performed yet masterful String Quartet in E minor. One of the primary miracles of this piece is that, despite its apparent perfection, it is the first and only quartet that Verdi ever wrote. Written during a postponement of a production of Aida in 1873 he premiered the work on April first for a group of friends and then immediately set it aside, insisting over their dismay that he “wrote it only for amusement.” Indeed it took repeated requests by his publisher Giulio Ricordi to finally get the work published in 1876. Highlights of the work include the close counterpoint of the first movement’s development, the blistering Scherzo and a fugue finale that seems to be a premonition of Falstaff.

The quartet is followed by Naomi O’Connell’s interpretation of Lady Macbeth’s Sleep Walking Aria. The number is Verdi’s depiction of the famous character’s confidence undermined by her guilt, leading eventually to madness. The Verdi portion of the program ends with three songs, “La seduczione,” “Stornello,” and “Brindisi.”

Friday’s concert ends with the neo-romantic Quintet for Piano and Strings by the American Vittorio Giannini (1903-1966) bringing the two day celebration to an end. Giannini was primarily an opera composer who was famous in his day for a musical expression that revealed a mastery of both the Italianate vocal style and Wagnerian chromaticism. Thus, to hear a chamber work from an opera composer who was influenced by both Wagner and Verdi is an appropriate ending to the celebration.  Further, a recent recording of the quintet by the Musicians of the Manchester Music Festival has sparked a resurgence in attention in his quintet. While I have not heard the work, it will be interesting to hear if it lives up to the hype. This quintet, like the Verdi and the Bruckner quintet above, will be performed by musicians from the Manchester Vermont Music Festival.

Friday’s concert also offers a pre-concert talk with Dr. Elizabeth Seitz (musicologist, author and faculty at Boston Conservatory), and the opportunity to join director Deveau (an internationally acclaimed pianist and faculty at MIT) for dinner beforehand. The concert takes place at the Shalin Liu Performance Center in Rockport and Tickets and information are available here.

Joseph E. Morgan is a PhD graduate of Brandeis University, where he studied early German romantic opera. He lives and teaches in the Boston area.

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