The Ties that Bind

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Music critic Lindsay Koob writes:

One of the coolest things about high culture is how its many genres keep fertilizing each other down through the ages. Legend inspires literature inspires music — and that’s only one of many ongoing artistic cross-pollinations. We’ve always celebrated our heroes (and bad guys) in poetry, drama, and song. Every year, arts junkies who look hard enough have always been able to find just such vital links connecting quite a few of Spoleto’s heady overload of events. You may have already picked up on some of this year’s — but in case you haven’t, read on.

I thought I had them all figured out, until I attended last Tuesday’s (rather sparsely attended) Spoleto opera press conference. Presiding music director Emmanuel Villaume digressed long enough to discuss, with his usual passion and eloquence, the various internal ties that bind many pending events. Turns out I missed only one of them.

First, it doesn’t take a high I.Q. to figure out that the bottom-line theme of this year’s festival is LOVE. Its main incarnation is Gounod’s opera after Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet. But wait: the Kneehigh Theatre’s production of Tristan and Yseult — based on the ancient Cornish legend — is very much the same kind of story. These are the star-crossed lovers of dark-ages Anglo-Saxon lore, not the medieval Italian legend that the Bard immortalized. But both stories are full of intrigue, fateful potions and noble families bumping each other off. Mozart’s opera Don Giovanni — back for a repeat run this year (only the second time that’s ever happened at Spoleto) — is more about lust and sexual gratification than love, but love makes an appearance. From these foundations, the threads fan out to form a veritable spiderweb of cross-genre connections.

Shakespeare’s original Romeo & Juliet inspired same-name musical, operatic and dance treatments from dozens of composers. One of them is a huge “cantata” from Hector Berlioz — and you’ll hear its aching “Love Scene” in the festival orchestra’s Sottile concerts on June 7 and 8. The same concert also features the amazing “Prelude-and-Love-Death” music from Richard Wagner’s great opera Tristan und Isolde, which takes us right back to our old Cornish legend. Powerful stuff, this: I’ve watched people turn red in the face and start breathing heavy while listening to it.

Then there’s the one I didn’t catch (shame on me!): a prime example of how great composers never stop feeding each other. The Sottile concert I've been talking about also offers Beethoven’s super-famous Symphony No. 5, and it turns out that Gustav Mahler wrote his own fifth symphony with Herr B’s in mind. You can hear the connection right away, and in the opening seconds of both. Just think of Beethoven’s opening theme — “du-du-du-DAAAH!” — then spin a CD of the Mahler symphony, and you’ll hear the same rhythmic pattern in the opening trumpet call. And both works reek of dire fate and bright glory.

That is, until we are dragged back into the love angle with the giddy romance of Mahler’s ‘Adagietto’ movement. And you’ll get to hear the Mahler in the big orchestral concert at the Gaillard on June 1. The other work offered there will be Richard Strauss’s lush and powerful tone poem, Don Juan — and that harks right back to the same evil lothario of ancient Spanish legend that also spawned Don Giovanni.

Don’t forget that this is still Mozart’s birthday year; you’ll be hearing him everywhere, and in both festivals. If you favor chamber music at Dock Street or the Intermezzo series, you’ll get several chances to hear first-hand how he sparked the muses of untold composers.

Enough already. Did I miss any? I hope I’ve given you something to chew on. I’ll share with you shortly some further musings and insider tips about the Mozart birthday angle, as well as some reportage prompted by my recent interviews with Drs. Wadsworth and Flummerfelt — not to mention an as-yet undisclosed secret or two.

Oh, by the way: Villaume also mentioned that the Sottile concert will be something of a sonic experiment. As that venue’s acoustics have long been considered spotty at best, the theatre’s orchestral pit will be covered for these concerts, and a new acoustic shell will be employed. There’s some pretty massive and meaningful music in store here, so let’s hope it works. —Lindsay Koob

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