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10 Operas About Poisonous and Medicinal Plants

The Titan Arum plant (Amorphophallus titanum), also known as the corpse flower or stinky plant, is seen in full bloom at the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory July 22, 2013 in Washington, DC.  AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER        (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

The Titan Arum plant (Amorphophallus titanum), also known as the corpse flower or stinky plant, is seen in full bloom at the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory July 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

The Titan Arum plant (Amorphophallus titanum), also known as the corpse flower or stinky plant, is seen in full bloom at the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory July 22, 2013 in Washington, DC.  AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER        (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

The Titan Arum plant (Amorphophallus titanum), also known as the corpse flower or stinky plant, is seen in full bloom at the United States Botanic Garden Conservatory July 22, 2013 in Washington, DC. AFP PHOTO / Karen BLEIER (Photo credit should read KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)

As everyone is poised for the corpse plant at the Chicago Botanic Garden to bloom, why not enjoy some music about poisonous and medicinal plants? Operas would be a lot less interesting if poison didn’t seep its way into their plots. Check out this list of 10 operas about poisonous and medicinal plants, taken largely from the research of João Paulo André at the Department of Chemistry at the University do Minho in Braga, Portugal. For more information about these works, be sure to read his paper “Opera and Poison – A Secret and Enjoyable Approach to Teaching and Learning Chemistry.”

1. Der Apotheker (Haydn)

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In the aria “Per quel che ha mal di stomaco,” one character in Haydn’s opera about an apothecary describes the virtues of rhubarb and manna for the digestive system.

2. Il Campanello (Donizetti)

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In the “prescription duet” in Donizetti’s opera centered around a wealthy pharmacist, two characters mention several poisonous and medicinal plants and chemicals, including Antimony chloride, mercury sulfide, sulfur, manna, and castor oil.

3. Suor Angelica (Puccini)

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In “Amici fiori,” Suor Angelica makes a poisonous drink with oleander, cherry laurel, hemlock, and belladonna.

4. Tristan und Isolde (Wagner)

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Nightshade is a plant central to the plot of Tristan und Isolde, one of the most famous operas involving poison.

5. Hamlet (Thomas)

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Though Hamlet is one of Shakespeare’s most commonly revived plays today, it is less commonly known in its operatic adaptation by Ambroise Thomas. Hamlet contains several mentions of poison, including a drink prepared with henbane.

6. Romeo and Juliet (Gounod)

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The star-crossed lovers of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, adapted for the operatic stage by Gounod, rely on poison in order to trick their families. Juliet’s “poison aria” is one of the most famous excerpt’s from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet.

7. Lakmé (Delibes)

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Everyone knows the “Flower Duet” from Delibes’s opera Lakmé. But, did you know that flowers are also the cause of Lakmé’s death? She kills herself by ingesting the poisonous datura plant.

8. L’Africaine (Meyerbeer)

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In this French grand opera, the Indian slave Selika commits suicide because her love for the Portuguese explorer Vasco Da Gama is unrequited. She dies by inhaling the poisonous vapors of the manchineel tree.

9. Il Guarany (Gomes)

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Apparently, operas involving European imperialism are ripe for poisonings! In this opera, some characters are killed with poison arrows when the Portuguese, Spanish, and two Indian tribes encounter each other.

10. La hija de Rappaccini (Catán)

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This Spanish language opera, based upon the short story by Nathaniel Hawthorne, is about a diabolical botanist who traps his own daughter in his garden, where he slowly poisons her!

Tell us your favorite operas about poisonous and medicinal plants in the comments below!


5 Women on Being Modern Women in Dance


The 9th Chicago Dancing Festival presented its first ever Modern Women program, highlighting the important contributions of women in dance both past and present: Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Kate Weare, Pam Tanowitz, and Crystal Pite. Modern Women featured the companies that each of these women founded [with the exception of Crystal Pite, whose A Picture of You FallingKidd Pivot)].

I spoke with women from each of the five companies on the program about women’s roles in dance, both as dancers and as choreographers. Each offered different perspectives on these complex issues, though there was a consensus that the roles of women in ballet and modern dance are drastically different.

Lori Belilove, Lori Belilove & The Isadora Dance Company


The dancers of the the Isadora Duncan Dance Company rehearsing Duncan’s “Valse Brillante” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago for “Modern Women” (Photo: Stephen Raskauskas)

Isadora Duncan was, according to Jack Anderson of the New York Times, “the woman who put the Modern into Modern Dance.” To describe her importance and influence in just a few sentences is nearly impossible. Duncan’s works are still performed by Lori Belilove & The Isadora Duncan Dance Company, the resident performing troupe of the Isadora Duncan Dance Foundation. Lori Belilove, who currently leads the Company as Artistic Director, has learned her craft through a direct lineage that goes back to Duncan herself.

Why are women often the stars on stage in ballet and modern dance?

Maybe because they are beautiful … and very expressive!

Why have men historically been the star choreographers, given that women are often the star dancers?

Men do like to boss women around and use them as their muses. Men can be very conceptual and have choreographic ideas, and women love to dance. Money for dance often flows through male channels, so men are more often funded and hold the purse strings.


Lori Belilove, Artistic Director of Isadora Duncan Dance Company

Do you perceive any differences between the work of female and male choreographers?

Sure— men can have brilliant conceptual ideas, but woman can move  into incredible subtle expressions and express a vital world view that is needed in this life right now. I think we need more sensitive artists working within the medium of dance, and they world need to supports them. Dance is a tremendous vehicle for human connections and understandings


Janet Eilber, Martha Graham Dance Company



Blakeley White-McGuire, a principal dancer of Martha Graham Dance Company, rehearsing Deep Song at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago for “Modern Women” (Photo: Stephen Raskauskas).

Janet Eilber has what she describes as “one of the greatest jobs in the world,” serving as the Artistic Director for the Martha Graham Dance Company. Martha Graham impacted so many subsequent generations of choreographers including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Twyla Tharp.  Outside the world of modern dance, everyone from Margot Fonteyn to Mikhail Baryshnikov to Bette Davis to Madonna have all sought the guidance of Martha Graham, the visionary artist and consummate performer. Eilber spoke with me just as she was about to jet off to Jacob’s Pillow where she and the company launch their 90th Anniversary season.

Why are women often the star dancers in ballet and modern dance?

That’s more true of ballet than modern dance. In ballet, one of the main functions of the man is to support the woman – to do the lifting and to help her balance when they are doing a pas de deux and that sort of thing. That was not so prevalent when modern dance was born. And, of course, modern dance was really born out of a woman’s health movement. So, from the very beginning, the role of gender was different.

Why are men often the star choreographers?

Janet Eilber, Artistic Director of Martha Graham Dance Company (Photo: John Deane)

Janet Eilber, Artistic Director of Martha Graham Dance Company (Photo: John Deane)

In ballet – which has a longer history – I think sexism came into in the early years. Men were allowed to be in charge. But I also think in more current times, because of the fact that the men’s roles are less nuanced – they are required to do the lifting, and to sort of be in the background in part – perhaps some of today’s choreographers were looking for a more creative outlet.

Martha was a game-changer in every way, shape, and form. She was such a radical thinker in the whole modernist movement. It’s really genderless. She was a genius who had a vision for what she wanted to put on the stage and who set out to realize that vision, and who just changed the game completely.

That being said of course, her work had a very female slant. Part of her drive was that she wanted to be on stage, and she wanted to create great roles for herself. So, much of the Graham repertoire is centered around strong female characters because that is what interested Martha Graham to put on stage.

Martha Graham created many roles inspired by some of history and mythology’s greatest women, can you tell me about some of them?

She borrowed from many different cultures and legends to take strong female characters. And of course she transformed them to give you a modern statement. But everyone from Medea to Joan of Arc… Adam and Eve… Phaedra… Clytemnestra… And Clytemnestra is her full-evening ballet and includes Elektra,  Helen of Troy, Cassandra, Iphigenia – the whole Greek gang!

And even a more ensemble piece like Appalachian Spring with the young bride at the center, an iconic American woman! When Martha Graham wrote to Aaron Copland as she was writing a script so that he could compose the music for Appalachian Spring, she described her woman as, ‘what we like to think of when we think of the American woman.’ So she was going for these iconic females.

It’s almost strange seeing her act so demure in Appalachian Spring after you’ve seen her play so many other heroines – it’s quite a departure.

The critics at the time mentioned this as well. They said it was Martha at her most pastoral, and they thought Aaron Copland had a lot to do with that sort of open-heartedness that we get from Appalachian Spring.

Do you perceive any differences between male and female choreographers?

I would say thematically, yes. I mean I’ve touched on the fact that Martha wanted to create roles for herself, and because dance is visual and about the body, Martha’s work is about the female body, and very often revolved around female issues. The work we’re brining to Chicago Deep Song from 1937 is an anti-war statement. At the time, Martha was speaking out against the rise of fascism in Europe and the Spanish Civil War in particular. You see this beautiful solo, it’s a lament, it contains anger, frustration. It’s a woman who has lost her husband or son or is considering what happens to her universe because of this war. So, yes! I guess the short answer is yes. When you have a female at the center of the work, it’s naturally geared towards female issues.


Claire Bataille, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

Hubbard Street Dancer Jesse Bechard in A Picture of You Falling by Crystal Pite (Photo: Todd Rosenberg).

Claire Bataille is a founding member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and the Director of the Lou Conte Dance Studio. This Ruth Page Award winning dancer has performed the works of Twyla Tharp, Lynne Taylor-Corbett, and Margo Sappington in her time with Hubbard Street. From 1977-2001 Bataille also served the company as assistant artistic director, ballet mistress and rehearsal director. She choreographed five works between 1978 and 1985. Here, she reflects on her decades of experience as a woman in dance.

Can you tell me your thoughts on women as choreographers and directors?

There are certainly more male artistic directors in dance, when it comes to the top-tier companies, although I feel that, in contemporary dance, it’s more evenly split. If you’re a woman who’s a dancer and you want to have a family, that means you’ve got to take a pretty big break, usually in your late thirties. Some go back into the field to pursue work as dance teachers and choreographers; some pursue other paths entirely and go into other careers.


Claire Bataille, Founding member of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

When I stopped dancing and was trying to pursue a choreographic career, I found that male choreographers were more frequently being hired — similar to in any other occupation. You reach that age when you’re not performing anymore and things change. But gender discrimination is really no different in the dance world from what it is in the corporate world, and I think in a lot of ways it comes back to that simple fact that men don’t have to carry babies.

It seems to me that now, there are more first-tier choreographers who are female, as opposed to in the ’70s. It was just that handful, Twyla and Martha. But when dance in general exploded, there were more ways to put yourself out there. It became easier to do your own projects and start your own company, and I feel there were more women who emerged in dance through that. The younger women I know who went to New York to dance are doing more creative work and their own projects. That’s very different from what it was like 40 years ago.

Did you ever feel you were being treated differently as a female choreographer, than you would’ve been treated if you were a man?

Not that I can recall, although I also never thought I was ‘the next great thing,’ the next Twyla Tharp. I did have more luck finding opportunities in university dance programs — where you do see a lot of women in leadership roles, as opposed to at dance companies; Western Michigan University and the University of Iowa brought me in. I was hired more often by other women, than I was by men.

Do you perceive any fundamental differences between the work of male and female choreographers?

I’ve never really thought about it that way. I don’t think so.


Kate Weare, Kate Weare Company


Members of Kate Weare Company rehearse an excerpt from Weare’s “Unstruck” at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago for “Modern Women” (Photo: Stephen Raskauskas).

Kate Weare is a dancer and choreographer whose company, Kate Weare Company, just celebrated its 10th Anniversary during the 2014-15 season. Though relatively young compared to other arts organizations, the Kate Weare Company has already made its mark on the dance world, having appeared at the Joyce Theater, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Jacob’s Pillow, and the American Dance Festival. Weare herself has received many awards and honors, including a 2014 Guggenheim Fellowship.

Why are women often the stars on stage in ballet and modern dance? Why have men historically been the star choreographers, given that women are often the star dancers?

It’s a problem to meld together the histories of ballet and modern dance. They are essentially different, often opposed, in terms of cultural values. Rebellious, powerful women first originated modern dance in America and Germany during the 1900s. Modern dance’s roots are in resistance and autonomy for women, and women’s actual experience is at the core of the art form.


Kate Weare, Artistic Director of Kate Weare Dance

Although it’s true that nowadays contemporary male choreographers rise higher and faster than female ones, the work of both female and male choreographers is informed by modern dance’s unique history of breaking down gender assumptions and barriers.

Ballet is a form that perceives women through a potent lens of fantasy and idealization. The perceiver is male and the object of perception female; that is the tradition and it persists today. You have male choreographers and female stars as the given order of things. However, as a broader acceptance of homosexuality gains ground, male stars themselves and the perception of male beauty as a theme are moving to the forefront.

Do you perceive any differences between the work of female and male choreographers?

Yes, just as one perceives differences between men and women in the real world. Those issues are reflected in the work of artists, but one would be hard-pressed to accurately generalize about them. The reason is this; modern dance as a tradition delves into the psyche of the individual as a means toward broadly-felt experience, presaging the feminist message “the personal is political.”  The unique qualities of the individual – originality, idiosyncrasy, outsiderness – are prized in this form. So I think that the voices that persist in modern dance, both male and female, tend to be ones that resist simple assumptions or easy categorization. That’s part of what makes modern dance so challenging, and ultimately, such an exciting reflection of our complex lives and identities.

Pam Tanowitz, Pam Tanowitz Dance

Pam Tanowitz Dance in Heaven on One's Head. Photo by Christopher Duggan 6

Pam Tanowitz Dance in “Heaven on One’s Head.” (Photo: Christopher Duggan)

Pam Tanowitz is a dancer and choreographer who founded her own company, Pam Tanowitz Dance, in 2000. Since, Pam Tanowitz Dance has performed at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, at the Joyce SoHo, the Baryshnikov Arts Center, and other prestigious venues. Tanowitz herself is the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2011, and was Hodder Fellow at Princeton University in 2013-14. She has served on the faculty for the American Ballet Theater, ABT/Bermuda and has taught master classes at Hunter College, American Dance Festival, Sarah Lawrence College and Greenwich Academy. She and I spoke during her rehearsals for Modern Women at the Chicago Dancing Festival.

Tell me about your experiences as a choreographer who is also a woman.

For me, it’s all about the work, right? Of course I know that I’m a woman and I’m making work. But the themes that I work with are things that I think are important to dance and dance history. I’m a female choreographer trying to make interesting dance in 2015. At the same time, I feel like it is hard for women because people are more apt to cultivate male choreographers, to give multiple chances to choreograph their work, and to give them opportunities for their work to grow.


Pam Tanowitz, Artistic Director of Pam Tanowitz Dance

I do not feel that’s the same for women. Someone might hire a female choreographer and if something didn’t go exactly how they wanted, or they have a different idea of how to gauge a work’s success, they might not hire another female choreographer for another 10 years. There are multiple chances for men to grow there work.

Can you tell me about how you have created your own opportunities?

I’ve been choreographing for about 25 years. I came to New York, and I didn’t wait around for someone to give me opportunities. I performed in CBGB’s gallery, and I had to go around and physically pull out nails from the stage that were sticking up, and I put up a show. I don’t do that anymore. But I’m grateful that I had to do that, and for all the opportunities I’ve gotten recently. Maybe other people don’t have quite as many opportunities to do that now. I don’t know what to say about that…

There are so many more female choreographers than there are programed during a given season. If you look at a season brochure, you might see 3 female choreographers and 3 male choreographers and think that’s an even number. But, that’s not true – it’s not proportionate to how many women are actually in dance. It should be 5 women and 1 male choreographer on a brochure. That would be maybe correct.

What would you say to young women who want to create opportunities for themselves?

When I was younger in my 20s, there were a lot of opportunities that I don’t think are available anymore. Things are more expensive… there’s a lot of stuff that’s different. I used to just work with my friends and I wouldn’t pay them anything. I don’t know if people really do that anymore. It’s really hard. I think what’s always been really important to me is pushing myself, making sure I stay true to the dance and the work that I’m making.

You have to be in it for the long haul. I’ve been making work for the last 25 years, but I’ve only been getting attention for the last 5, okay? So you have to love it. You have to be committed to it. You have to determine what you want your work to be, and hopefully the community and the critics will come. But you can’t expect things to come to you unless you’re in for the long haul. I can tell you my path about how I got certain opportunities to show my work, but it’s going to be different for everyone.

Barenboim and Berlin orchestra confirm Tehran concert plan



Daniel Barenboim (left) performs with the Berliner Staatskapelle orchestra in central Berlin on June 12, 2015 (AFP Photo/Stephanie Pilick)

Berlin (AFP) – Israeli-Argentinian conductor Daniel Barenboim is hoping to take one of Germany’s top orchestras to Iran to perform a concert there, the Berlin State Opera said Thursday, drawing angry protests from Israel.

Barenboim, 72, who is general music director of the German capital’s flagship opera house, the State Opera, “is in talks with Iran about a possible concert in Tehran by the Staatskapelle Berlin,” the house said in an emailed statement.

German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier had agreed to take over the patronage of the concert as he “supports Daniel Barenboim’s dedication to making music accessible to all people, irrespective of national, religious or ethnic boundaries,” the statement said.

Further details of the concert would be announced “once the negotiations have been concluded,” the opera house said.

Barenboim’s plans drew an angry response from Israel.

Israeli culture minister Miri Regev had said Wednesday that she intended to send a letter of protest to German Chancellor Angela Merkel calling on her to block the concert.

“In my letter I shall stress that Daniel Barenboim’s appearance in Iran harms Israel’s efforts to prevent the nuclear agreement and gives encouragement to de-legitimisation of Israel,” she wrote on her Hebrew Facebook page.

“Iran is a state which supports terror, is behind Hezbollah, Islamic Jihad and Hamas and its leaders have blood on their hands. I believe that Germany would be acting rightly if it were to cancel the appearance of the orchestra and its conductor,” Regev continued.

She accused Barenboim — who founded a ground-breaking youth orchestra called the West-Eastern Divan Orchestra in 1999 that brings together Israeli, Egyptian, Iranian, Jordanian, Lebanese and Palestinian musicians — of “using culture as a platform for his anti-Israel political views.”

Barenboim, who has also taken honorary Palestinian citizenship, conducted the Divan Orchestra in a concert in Ramallah in 2005.

He is also controversial in Israel for his efforts to have the music of Richard Wagner, the German composer adored by Adolf Hitler, performed in the Jewish state.

Iran reached a deal with world powers last month which will see Western-led sanctions against Iran lifted in exchange for a new inspections regime and curbs on Tehran’s atomic programme.

The prominent Jewish rights group, the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, also hit out at the concert plans.

In a letter to Chancellor Merkel, a centre official, Shimon Samuels, expressed astonishment at the German leader’s “plan to visit Iran in October,” reportedly to mark the signing of the nuclear deal, and “at news that you are to be accompanied by the Berlin Staatskapelle, led by its musical director, Daniel Barenboim.”

Samuels urged Chancellor Merkel to “reconsider the mission to Tehran and, above all, to cancel this embellishment -– under the cover of music –- of Iran’s constantly declared nuclear genocidal design to destroy Israel.”

29 Composers and their Canine Companions


Season Finale — Richard Wagner: Siegfried Idyll

John Macfarlane, conductor; with musicians from the Chicago Symphony, Grant Park, Lyric Opera, and Civic Orchestras.

Recorded in Bennett Gordon Hall July 20

Emerson String Quartet
Recorded in Bennett Gordon Hall July 20

Beethoven: Quartet #16 in F Major, Op 135
Dvorak: Quartet #12 in F Major, Op 96, American

10 Reaction Gifs of Leonard Bernstein Conducting That You Never Knew You Always Needed

08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA --- Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler's  symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

08 Jul 1970, Lenox, Massachusetts, USA --- Conductor Leonard Bernstein at the climax of Mahler's symphony performed by the Boston Symphony in Lenox, Massachusetts. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS


How Gabriela Montero Uses the Piano for Political Protest



Pianist, composer, and improviser Gabriela Montero is speaking out against corruption in Venezuela, her home country, using the most powerful way she knows how: music.

During Hugo Chávez’s term serving as “Eternal President of the United Socialist Party of Venezuela” from 1999-2013, tens of thousands of Venezuelans have been murdered by the government. In 2008, the Economist Intelligence Unit Democracy Index named Venezuela a “Hybrid Regime” and the least democratic country in South America.

Montero composed Ex Patria, a piano concerto dedicated to Venezuela and those who suffer there, in 2011. In the three years following the premiere of her piece, the United Nations has received 31,096 complaints of human rights violations in Venezuela, only 3.1% of which resulted in an indictment by the Venezuelan Public Ministry.

The virtuosa spoke with me from Los Angeles about Ex Patria, the role of music in politics, and more.

Can you tell me about your piano concerto, Ex Patria, which you’ve just recorded on your new album?

I wrote Ex Patria in 2011 to honor the 19,336 victims of homicide that year in Venezuela. It is an act of dissent. It is an act of protest. I wrote it because I felt like as an artist I needed to make a photograph of what Venezuela is like. There were 25,000 murders in Venezuela last year.

It is really a piece that opens with a bit of nostalgia. Then the different instruments “corrupt” and steal the themes. It’s a piece where you’ll hear gunfire, you’ll hear oppression, you’ll hear the military. It’s a very powerful piece, but it’s a powerful piece because it’s an intense situation where people are suffering very much.

Why did you feel compelled to use music as a form of political protest?

The way that Ex Patria was born was really out of that sense of frustration and pain having received hundreds if not thousands of messages from Venezuelans telling me what they had gone through: kidnap, murder, expatriation, or just being in exile starting over and leaving everything behind – breaking up families, and everything that comes with the demise of a society.

I really wanted it to be a metaphor of what Venezuela has become in the last 16 years. I want it to be a storytelling moment that people really take with them, so it’s not just me giving numbers in a concert hall, saying “This is dedicated to 19,336 victims of homicide. But rather, an imprint, a musical imprint, that they carry with them forever after listening to the piece.

How did you start composing this piece?

It was very much done in large sections where I would say, “Ok, this is where I want to portray gunfire.” That’s something that everyone in Venezuela is exposed to, and where everybody knows someone who has been killed, either directly as a friend, as a family member – it is not uncommon to hear gunfire in Venezuela, you hear it all the time. I also wanted these kind of greedy, corrupt characters of the military and the government to appear very much like Prokofiev depicted – you know, like these fat frogs – as part of the whole portrayal. I want this piece to be about sound but about noise at the same time.

How is the piece structured?

It begins with this beautiful theme, almost like a recollection of a better time, of a childhood innocence which is then taken, mangled obliterated, it’s stolen. The audience really feels that’s happening, because you can see that in the orchestra, you can see the physical taking of a theme from an instrument to another, and this is what people feel, that their lives, their things, their dignity, their human rights have been taken from them and just crushed.

The middle section is a beautiful lament, it’s a moment of great sorrow. And I have to say this is the moment where I break down in the piece and I cry because I have this archive inside of me of stories of so many people who have come to me, to tell me, and to share them with me. This is where I want to be a vessel to convey those stories to the world.

After the beautiful middle section, where we all empathize with this pain, then again it’s taken, and it’s destroyed and it’s mangled, and it becomes one big chaos, and the piece ends with a gun shot. It’s a metaphor. It’s a very illustrative metaphor of present day Venezuela.

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You are well-known for your astounding ability to improvise. How did improvisation play a role in your compositional process for Ex Patria?

Because I am an improviser, which is really spontaneous composing in the end, most of the piano part was done in big segments of improvisation. It just came out. It just flowed. And of course the challenge for me was to learn that, because it’s almost for me as if it’s a different part of my brain.

So that was an interesting process for me: to have the score and say, “God this is difficult! Why did I do this?!” And to have my husband in the next room say, “Well you wrote it, so you can’t complain to the composer, no?” It was very much like that with the orchestra.

It would be very clear what I wanted the clarinet to play or what I wanted the trumpet to play, and the orchestration came as a very organic development from the piano part, which is the main voice in this piece really. All the other elements are somehow the corrupter affecting the solo piano. So it was very much done in layers. It was a very quick birth, let’s say!

There are many ways that a soloist in a concerto can interact with the larger ensemble. Can you describe the dynamic between the solo piano part and the orchestra in Ex Patria?

It’s relentless, and that’s what I really wanted to create, this tension, this anxiety. The piano part is extremely difficult, not only because of what it is written, but how it’s meant to be played. It requires a lot of force and a lot of stamina. It’s meant to be suffering.

You have to physically suffer things some times to emote what you want, for it to be real. I wanted the audience to feel a bit suffocated – of course I don’t want to put of listeners from actually listening to it, because it’s a beautiful piece. But it’s a piece that has a greater significance than just music making.

What other composers who have composed protest music have inspired you?

Music that is protest driven is usually quite difficult, not only the result but the process, and what people give up to be a part of that process. Shostakovich, the way he very painfully and painstakingly tried to depict in his works…Prokofiev, in the way that he used his humor to ridicule what he detested and those he detested… It’s very important to use humor as well as a tool of somehow being antagonist and being opposed to something.

I think that characters who have stood up against tyranny, and who have used their craft to speak against it, and who have used their music as a tool to inform and report – these are my heros. Someone like Casals, or Rostropovich, who also took a stance against the regime that he was opposed to. Any opportunity that anyone has taken in the past or present to speak issues that are relevant for me deserves a handshake. That’s how we should be using our voices.

Of course, it can be hard for a woman to express her voice in a world dominated by men. Have you ever experienced obstacles as a woman who is a classical musician?

I think this is a very difficult career for women in general – not because we can’t handle it in general, but because the whole nature of the fact that women are the creative the voice that we are and the life giving force that we are. When you’re a mother and you’re an artist, it’s very hard to successfully live in those to worlds and to split yourself. You want to give everything to your children, you want to give everything to your art – so that’s a challenge in itself.

It’s still a very male-dominated world. There are challenges in the way that a woman artists is meant to be more of a product than it was in the time of Myra Hess, or in the time of Annie Fischer, where physique and that part of the fantasy of a woman performer was not even relevant. These women were great artists, independently of what they looked like. I think that Martha Argerich really broke the mold because she was the smoldering, beautiful, sexy, volcanic, crazy, incredible pianist, and she really was a different animal in that time.

I think the pressures on women are very different from what they were 50 years ago, and that cannot be taken lightly, because the whole career has changed. I don’t think I’ve ever personally encountered any real machismo or anything like that myself.

Have you encountered any other struggles throughout your career?

My struggle has been more to have the people understand that what I do as an improviser, as a pianist, and as a composer are all an integral part of who I am, as a woman, and as an artist. The conversation about whether or not you’re a jazz musician if you’re an improviser is one that I’ve had to have many times. And I say, “No! I am a classical concert pianist, and I am classical improviser!” That is the world that I live in, that is the world that I make music in. There’s no need to divide – “You’re an improviser… you’re classical… you’re jazz..” No!

Who was Mozart? Who was Beethoven? Chopin? Liszt? These were great composers and they were great improvisers. So that has been more the challenge – how in this more conservative classical world that we live in today, as opposed to the 18th or 19th century when things were so much more open and creativity was more across the board, how to make people understand that we don’t need to divide it. That’s what my new album is about: Gabriela Montero, the composer, the pianist, the improviser – as one, which is what I am.

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Why do you think your performances as an improviser are so powerful for audiences?

So many young people come up to me after a recital where I improvise the second half.  I do about 6 improvisations. They’ve given me their favorite pop theme, and then I do a 7 minute fugue let’s say on that – very complex… 5, 6 voices… and their excitement at hearing their favorite pop tune sound like Bach in that baroque language has been amazing for me.

I feel it’s been the best way to create that bridge across time. It’s very different to see a woman who is alive in front of you taking a style from so long ago and making your pop tune into that. The way they relate to it is very different than if they’re listening to a Bach partita for the first time, and they might not understand the language.

Improvisation can serve as a great equalizer. It can be not only a wonderful creative form for people to enjoy themselves but for them to bring the audience to understand that classical music very much alive and it’s very much about today. It’s a great way to get young people interested in classical music and to recruit them.

I feel with improvisation, it’s like a door that has to be open, and you jump in, and you don’t think, and you don’t judge, you just allow it to happen. That’s what it is for me. I hope to see more people enjoy that process – where they see music as a storytelling tool, rather than fast fingers, or loudness, or career, or success? No. It’s about the moment, and it’s about storytelling.

You have been performing and improvising since you were very young. Has it been difficult  being in the public spotlight for nearly your entire life?

I’ve improvised since I was a very little girl, since the very beginning. I was seven months old. At a year and a half I was already playing and improvising. There was a time when unfortunately it was not very well understood what I did, because I was the only one, or maybe one of two, who could improvise in the classical world today. It’s very rare to see that. There was a bit of prejudice I guess, a bit of taboo, of seeing a classical artist sitting on stage and improvising – very complexly, but still, it’s improvisation. That element was something that I had to educate the public and the promoters about what it is that I really do, and to get away from that stigma that improvisation is arpeggios or ornamentation or whatever. No. It’s composition!

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One very memorable composition you have played is John Williams’s “Air And Simple Gifts” at the 1st presidential Inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009 – a very different kind of political performance! Can you tell me about that?

It was amazing not only because musically it was such a great group and great family to be with.  But it was a moment of reconciliation for this country, of healing, of joy, of just overcoming a difficult history, or at least the beginning of overcoming it. I have nothing but admiration for the Obamas, and I was so happy and so honored to be a part of that day.

For more informational about Gabriela Montero and her new album, visit her website.

For more information in English about events taking place inVenezuela as viewed by local journalists, visit El Universal‘s website.

Elgar the Kingdom

The Festival’s 2015 season comes to a thrilling close with Elgar’s epic oratorio The Kingdom, featuring the Grant Park Chorus and an all-star line-up of vocalists.

Grant Park Orchestra
Carlos Kalmar, Conductor
Erin Wall, Soprano
Jill Grove, Mezzo-Soprano
Garrett Sorenson, Tenor
Brian Mulligan, Bass-Baritone

Elgar: The Kingdom

Why Composer Max Richter Wants to Put You to Sleep



Composer Max Richter wants people to doze off during his latest composition, SLEEP, which he calls an “8-hour lullaby.” SLEEP has its world-premiere performance this September in Berlin, Germany, coinciding with the release of a full recording of the piece (as well as a condensed, one-hour version) by Deutsche Grammophon.

I spoke with Max from London to learn about this curious new project. He explained some of his inspiration for SLEEP. He also dispelled some of the myths being circulated by the media that he’s attempting to break records with the “longest ever piece of classical music,” as the Telegraph UK claimed in a recent feature.

What is some music that you’ve attended live that’s put you to sleep in the past?

In a good way or a bad way? [Laughs] Well, there are some composers who I kind of grit my teeth through – and, I mean, that’s just personal preference. I mean, Bruckner comes to mind. Maybe that’s not fair to him, because he just works on a very big scale, but in the sort of Church of Bruckner or Church of Mahler, I’m definitely in the Mahler side, 1000%. I just do feel like those long stretches, where not much happens – I do struggle with them a bit. I’m not sure if I’ve ever really nodded off, but I’ve definitely sort of wished to, sometimes.

You’d be totally lying if you said you never took a little “opera nap” once in a while.

Yeah… I can’t honestly think of specifics, but I mean, the opera is the sort of classic, isn’t it? ‘Cause the thing is, opera houses are sort of comfy, aren’t they? They’re dark –

You’ve had a little something to eat, a little something to drink. . .

Feeling warm and snug in this sort of red velvet… It’s just so cozy. Of course you’re gonna nod off, yeah.

For the premiere of Sleep later this fall, you’re going to let audiences get very comfy!

That’s the idea. We’re playing the piece in the round, so the ensemble is in the center of the audience. We’ll be surrounded by approximately 500 beds, and everyone gets their own little bed, and hopefully nod off, and then we play through the night.

I can imagine that arranging for 500 beds is a logistical nightmare. Can you tell me a little bit about the logistics that have gone into transforming the auditorium into a musical sleepover?

Well, we don’t know yet, but we’re going to find out. The logistics of this project – and perhaps I was naïve going into it – have been very challenging. Normally when you do a take of something in the studio it will take like, I dunno, 5-10 minutes or something, and when you listen to that take, it takes another 15 minutes, maximum. In this case, of course, you’ll do a take and it will be an hour, then if you want to listen to the take, then that takes another hour. So the days just go by doing seemingly small tasks. But because the objects are so big, everything just gets really stretched out. It’s a bit like that “slow food” movement – slow record production movement is what we’re doing.

Hearing about this project, I was reminded of certain pieces of modern classic art that people will see in a contemporary gallery and think, “Why is this art?” What would you say to someone who isn’t convinced that a piece conceived like this isn’t music?

I feel like, with the duration of the piece – it’s not some sort of record attempt. It’s the length it is because that’s the length, approximately, that we’re supposed to sleep. So it’s functional music in this really classical sense: it has a function, and its function is that it accompanies a night’s sleep. So, I mean, it isn’t really anything beyond that. I mean, I do see the connection to the durational movement in the fine arts. There’s been a sort of resurgence of this work, which has its roots in the early ‘60s – y’know, someone like Marina Abramović, for example, with the emphasis on long spans of time and relatively small groups of material to focus on during that period. It’s classic minimalism, really. And La Monte Young and Terry Riley and all these sorts of people were doing overnight concerts at that time. So I think it’s a set of ideas which is finding a new audience.

You mentioned Terry Riley. What other composers have influenced your style – this functional, minimalist musical style?

Well, Satie was really a visionary. In fact, I heard such an interesting performance of Vexations – not all of it, I have to admit! – but I dipped in and out during a brilliant performance a couple of years ago, and it was such fun. The thing about Satie is, he wanted his music to fade into the background and really be furniture. But the thing is, it’s such charming music, such beautiful music; it’s actually very difficult to ignore! I think that’s the paradox of Satie, and I think he would enjoy that paradox himself.

It’s also very difficult to play, despite seeming easy on the surface. It requires a whole different concentration and technique.

Yes, it’s very easy to play badly. And that’s the thing: we’re accustomed to thinking millions of notes on a page is hard, and it is, often. But the reverse isn’t necessarily true. When there’s not that much data on the page, not that many notes, it becomes much more about intention, concentration, and focus. That was one of the challenges with recording this piece, especially for the strings. Long expanses of not too much happening – that’s kind of a string player’s nightmare!

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A lot of the music on your album, the full version, is for keyboard instruments. So, in those ways, you are working in the tradition of Satie and Glass in applying minimalism to the keyboard. Can you tell me about the different keyboard instruments you’re using?

Prepared piano is the sort of central sound – I say “prepared,” but it’s really minimally prepared. It’s a felt piano, with an extra layer of felt between the piano and the strings, so it just has a very dark sound. Next we have a little chamber organ, and various sorts of synthesizers and computers, which are mostly busy doing very low-frequency things. Then the rest of the ensemble is a string quintet and two sopranos. So it’s quite a neat and tidy band – I mean, it sort of has to be, because from a performance perspective, the more folk you have, the more complex the whole thing becomes.

So, for the premiere do you have people coming in in different shifts?

Well, what I’ve done is I’ve structured it in such a way that people do get breaks, individually, so not everyone is on the whole time. It’s actually just one to a chair, which is, y’know – I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to manage it, but it turned out just fine. Except me: I have to play the whole time! [Laughs] That’s my own fault.

How are you going to personally prepare to play all night long?

I’m going to sleep a lot beforehand and try to get plenty of rest, basically. I do think the best thing would be to come in from another time zone and just sit down, but that would be even worse, probably.

What kind of music do you yourself enjoy? Not necessarily minimalist music, but any kind of music that you listened to as you found your own voice as a composer.

I have a lot of different musical enthusiasms. I mean, probably the same ones that most composers would cite: Bach, obviously. You know, he wrote the language, so that’s where it all starts. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t play something on the piano of Bach’s. Talking about Bach is like talking about Mt. Everest – he’s just there.

So, there’s Bach. Having had an English music education, Purcell is hugely important, and I love Purcell’s music. For later composers, Schubert is a big hero of mine, in a way, because of his directness. Also, his harmonic language I love. Then, in the twentieth century, Stravinsky, obviously; it’s kind of an obsession. Then, a little later, my teacher Berio – I love his music, because it’s this very complete and omnivorous way of thinking about music and music history.

Then the minimalists were very important for me, and still are. So it’s a whole range of things.

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What would you say to people who write off minimalism?

The thing is, the world is big, and it’s not like we all have to like everything. It’s personal preference, really. I would say that one of the things about minimalism is that it is imbedded in the tonal system. The tonal system itself, it grows out of physics. It’s not an opinion; it just is like that. So in that way, it’s a sort of outgrowth of the harmonic series. So, for me, it’s very persuasive as a way of structuring a language, because we inhabit the same physical universe as the one that gave rise to the harmonic series and the tonal system. So, for me, I don’t need to ask questions about it.

Of course, I very much appreciate atonal music and all sorts of other musics, but for me, one of the persuasive things about minimalism – or what we might call classical minimalism – is its enlargement and refinement of what’s possible within tonal music. It is a fascinating thing, because when it started in the early ‘60s, generally speaking, the European-American, avant-garde, modernist culture was so anti-repetition, anti-legible structures, it was what you might call anti-“whistleability” and easy decoding. And minimalism broke every one of those rules, and it was incredibly subversive, actually. If we think of Schoenberg as a historical figure, with this historical project to revolutionize music, thinking of himself as writing this language that would last for hundreds of years – well he did do that, in some ways. But equally, the minimalists have done it, arguably even more influentially.

So I think it’s interesting. What I’d say is that there’s room for all sorts of plants in the garden. I think the prescriptive attitude of “This music is better than that music” for some abstract, philosophical reason – I’m a bit suspicious of that, honestly. I think it’s about music as a conversation between the composers, the performers, the listeners. I think that’s really the interesting thing, and that abstract, philosophical reasons are, for me, less interesting.

Have you had any “Aha!” moments or encounters with specific pieces of music or composers?

There’ve been many, but two come to mind in my own personal history. First of all, being taken as a kid to Fantasia, and hearing the Rite of Spring in the dinosaur sequence. I was about six or something, that I was so freaked out and blown away that I basically had a tantrum and forced my mother to take me back to the same show so I could hear this incredible music again. And as a kid, I probably hadn’t heard anything later than Schubert at that point, so it really blew my mind. I still love Stravinsky; he’s such a brilliant composer.

So that’s one. And the second one actually involves Philip Glass, and it happened a bit later, when I was about 12. I was practicing the piano and stuff as a kid, and we had a milkman who delivered the milk in the morning. In the afternoons, once a week, he’d come back and be paid, and stuff. He’d hear me practicing, and he decided to take me on as a project. At that time, being a milkman was one of those jobs you could do while secretly being a novelist or a painter or something like that. And this guy was a composer; he was into music. He was collecting all these early recordings of Philip Glass on vinyl, which nobody really knew about in the UK – and certainly I as a 12 year old wouldn’t know.

So he would deliver the milk and the latest Philip Glass on vinyl in the morning! So I heard music – Contrary Motion, Music in 12 Parts, Music with Changing Parts – as this 12-year-old kid who knew nothing. There I would sit for hours on end, just going through this material, and it really did blow my mind. And I think that’s one of the things Glass’s music can do, because it’s deceptively simple. It comes across in this very plainspoken way, and you think, “Yeah, I know what that is.” But it’s actually a lot smarter than it appears, and I think that’s one of the great things about it. I can’t remember who said that about Wagner, y’know – that his music is better than it sounds. But Glass absolutely falls into that category, too; he’s a really, really smart composer. His sense of architecture and drama is very great, and very fine, I think.

What would you say to someone who is suspicious that a project like this – an eight-hour long piece meant to put listeners to sleep – is only conceived as a kind of gimmick or novelty piece?

The first thing, really, is that the piece is an experiment and an investigation into how music can coexist or operate within this other state of consciousness – which, y’know, neuroscience tells us is actually not a passive state. It’s very busy, but just busy in a different way…

And I guess the second thing is that the duration isn’t meant to be something like a world record attempt. If I really wanted to do that, I’d just put a repeat sign at the end and make it 16 hours! For example, there’s that Cage piece, As Slow as Possible, that I think is due to finish in about 600 years’ time.

So that’s neither here nor there. It’s functional music, in the classical sense, and it’s the length it is because it’s intended to be slept through. It’s as simple as that, really; it’s to accompany the act of sleeping.

For more information about composer Max Ricther, visit his website.