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On Playing the Harmonium with Odyssey Opera


Errol Flynn, beloved rogue.
Errol Flynn, beloved rogue.

When Erich Wolfgang Korngold’s Die tote Stadt sweeps into Jordan Hall for its first performance in Boston in anyone’s memory, it will be thanks to Odyssey Opera’s presentation under Gil Rose of a concert version of the extravagant score with a large orchestra and excellent soloists. Tickets to the single performance on Saturday at 7:30pm can be purchased here. More details and cast list appear at page bottom.

My first exposure to Korngold must have come on some rainy afternoon in my youth when I vaguely remember seeing some swashbuckling on TV. Michael Curtiz’s 1938 The Adventures of Robin Hood with Errol Flynn is unforgettable—an arrow shot straight through all time. And part of its timeless appeal is the wonderful Korngold score [on YouTube here]. I next came to Korngold’s oeuvre performing on my celesta for the Korngold Violin Concerto with the New Bedford Symphony some years ago, and remember that music being colorful and muscular.

Fast forward to last Thursday when I found myself playing Lee Eiseman’s beautiful 1934 Mustel harmonium (I have an 1897 Etienne harmonium, which is quite different) for the first rehearsal of Die tote Stadt. This has taken my experience of Korngold’s music far beyond Robin Hood, Captain Blood, and the Violin Concerto. I am reminded of Bernstein’s famous quote in his Harvard Norton Lectures that after Mahler late Romanticism ‘collapsed under its own weight’. But what a glorious and gorgeous weight it was. I’ve played also on harmonium with the BSO for Richard Strauss’s Salome and the experience is probably something like surfing a giant Hawaiian wave. The music of Korngold resembles in places Strauss, but also in other places Gershwin, and of course in other places resembles one of my lifelong heroes, thanks to the influence of my old brother, the film music of Bernard Herrmann (American despite the name).

Korngold had clearly an astonishing command of harmony and orchestration and he almost embarrassingly flaunts his virtuosic compositional chops in this opera. My part on the harmonium weaves in and out through the entire opera, sometimes in a solo role, sometimes playing with the overall tutti orchestra, sometimes playing dense chords both high and low that seem intended to create a dramatic ‘ooze’ for the plot moment of foreboding, confusion, or doom.

The harmonium orchestral part, which like all orchestral parts, is laid out by showing meter changes, tempo changes (lots of colorful German phrases where one can almost sniff out Korngold’s personality), and instrumental cues. Almost comically, my cues are often from the celesta (Odyssey is using my Mustel—yes, the same company as Lee’s harmonium). I say comical, because often the orchestration is so wild and colorful, it’s difficult to hear the celesta. The celesta plays, at least in the rehearsal venue of the I. M. Pei Sunday School building in the Christian Science Center, just to my right, so I often simply look at the player in my peripheral vision, because I can’t actually hear the sound, blended in with the other furious goings-on in Korngold’s orchestration.

The very first scene begins as conductor Gil Rose says, by surprise: Korngold jumps right into the action with the soprano starting only 12 measures in, so no traditional overture here. Tempi and meter shift continually, and Rose does a brilliant job of giving a no-nonsense clear, yet also inspired, indication to the orchestra at all times of where we are. I played on Lee’s harmonium last spring for the first time for Gil, for Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts, and found it such a joy to both follow Rose and play with this wonderful group of people who often also play with Gil’s prodigious Boston Modern Orchestra Project. BMOP actually contacted me last spring about finding a harmonium with a wind blower on it, so one doesn’t need to pump the pedals. But I explained to them, that although such things do exist, an electric blower takes all the expression and life out of a living, breathing harmonium. Sensitive pumping of a harmonium can resemble violin bowing and led to the sobriquet, orgue exspressif.

For those who are uninitiated, harmoniums are largely European-built instruments that work on ‘outward’ wind pressure, like blowing out on a harmonica (a brighter, louder sound). American reed organs, by contrast, were deliberately build on inward suction to make the machine easier to play. In his treatise on how to play the instrument, Victor Mustel admonished the aspirant to master the art of la soufflerie (making wind).

Thus in Korngold one will hear many astonishing sounds. There is actually one part in the score where I mark as a cue for myself ‘sails unfurling’ because it is the classic film score music of a great lumbering clipper leaving the calm breakwaters of a harbor and letting out the full sails as it catches the wind to head to the coast of Brazil. To be precise, this happens at the opening of act I, scene 5, and Korngold here writes “Mit glanz und breitem Schwung”, “With high gloss and wide swing.”

Ricahrd Tauber
Richard Tauber
Lotte Lehmann (file photo)
Lotte Lehmann (file photo)

We rehearsed with just orchestra on Thursday and Friday evening; on Sunday the singers arrived. There is a solo/duet in this opera that for me is one of the most beautiful things I’ve heard in all of classical music, beyond the Nimrod Variation, beyond the Mahler Adagietto–it begins with “Glück das mir verblieb, rück zu mir mein treues Lieb” “Fortunately, that which remained to me, has come back to me, my own true love…” sung by Marietta, and then joined by Paul (falling in love with a femme fatale who resembles his dead wife). This occurs at 7 after rehearsal 57, also in scene 5 of the first act, and then this leitmotif returns toward the tragic end of the opera.

When Jay Hunter Morris and Meagan Miller sang this Sunday night, there was an electricity in the room that was really special, a moment when one remembers why all of the sacrifices have been made to live a life of classical music. I don’t know what else to say – the melody is so ravishing and seductive, one actually becomes part of the opera, instead of just listening to it. An astonishingly fine interpretation from 1924 is sung by Lotte Lehmann and Richard Tauber here.

There are many other unforgettable moments, and I can’t say enough how exciting it is to be a part of this production. You will hear Gershwinesque, Salome-esque and many other fascinating Korngoldesques. You will hear extensive use of French horns, led fearlessly by Kevin Owen, and there are moments that remind me of the 8-10 French horns in Herrmann’s On Dangerous Ground. Finally there is to me, a ballet musician of many years, one of the greatest waltzes I’ve heard, at rehearsal 69 – 81 – also in act I scene 5. The opera gives me an opportunity to use many of the colors on Lee’s harmonium, from the softest 8 foots to the full 16, 8, 4, 2, 32 feet sounds on his Mustel. I don’t need to go to Hawaii to ride a 60-foot wave, playing with this massive orchestra for Korngold’s ‘’The Dead City” I’m sure comes quite close to the feeling.

Kevin Galiè, M.M., J. D. divides his time between in Le Marche and Boston, performing, researching, teaching and arranging music for chorus, ballet, and orchestral keyboards.  He is music director at Pope St. John XXIII National Seminary, music director of the MIT Women’s Chorale, and music director and founder of Coro-Dante, an all-Italian repertoire chorus. He is a concert organist as well as an orchestral keyboardist on harmonium, celesta, positiv organ and harpsichord

Erich Wolfgang Korngold Die tote Stadt

Libretto by Paul Schott (pseudonym of Erich and Julius Korngold), after the novel Bruges-la-Morte by Georges Rodenbach

Conductor — Gil Rose

Saturday — September 13, 7:30 pm, Jordan Hall
30 Gainsborough Street, Boston


Erich Wolfgang Korngold
Erich Wolfgang Korngold

Available by phone at 617.585.1260
WGBH and WBUR members 10% off with codes WGBH14 and WBUR14
Seniors $5 off ticket price
Students $5 off ticket price ($10 student rush tickets available 2 hours prior to performance)

In 1895 in the fading city of Bruges, Belgium, Paul mourns the death of his saintly young wife, Marie, for whom he maintains a veritable shrine in his home. His friend Frank urges Paul to move on with his life, but Paul insists that Marie “still lives,” and that he has in fact met her on the street.  This eerie look-alike for Marie is Marietta, a coquettish dancer, who follows Paul back to his home and, in spite of his odd behavior, attempts to seduce him. As Paul struggles between fidelity to his wife’s memory and attraction to Marietta, he enters a series of increasingly disturbing and violent visions, and the plot takes on the subtleties of a psychological thriller.

Run time: 2 hours 30 minutes (3 acts with 2 intermissions). Sung in German with projected English supertitles.

Paul — Jay Hunter Morris*
Marietta/Marie — Meagan Miller*
Frank — Weston Hurt
Brigitta, Paul’s housekeeper — Erica Brookhyser
Fritz, an actor — Thomas Meglioranza
Victorin, the director — Frank Kelley
Juliette, a dancer — Sara Heaton
Lucienne, a dancer — Janna Baty
Count Albert — Alan Schneider
Gaston, a dancer — Jonas Budris

*Boston debut

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  1. I do wish I had read this article before seeing what will go down as one of the most unforgettable, beautiful performances in the astonishingly long number of years that I have been listening to classical music. We could barely see Lee’s harmonium from our seats (neither could we see the harps at all, nor more than the right arm of Frank Kelly’s colorful jacket and occasionally his mop and characteristic profile…not enough…), and although we could see M. Galie playing, it was indeed difficult to pick it out.

    But what orchestration! We saw one of the lead musicians last night at yet another great concert — Winsor Music. This player, whom I will not name but is revered by Boston audiences, hugged himself with sheer joy when we mentioned how wonderful that opera performance was.

    Yes, it unmistakably recalls Salome, but also in its psychological ferocity and orchestration, for me it recalled Bluebeard’s Castle.

    That duet was incredible. And Meglioranza’s beautiful, melodious singing was also ravishing. The whole opera radiated an uncanny sense of immediacy.

    Thank you, Gil Rose. Thank you, Randolph Fuller. thank you, all ye performers.

    Comment by Bettina A. Norton — September 15, 2014 at 6:57 am

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