Archive for Mozart

A Semester of Covid-19

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19, Education, Maynooth, Music with tags , , , , , , , on September 12, 2020 by telescoper

It’s the Twelfth of September so it’s now precisely six months to the day since schools and colleges in Ireland were closed because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The initial announcement on 12th March was that the closure would be until 29th March. Little did we know then that six months later campus would still be closed to students.

Here is how the pandemic has progressed in Ireland since March:

On 12th March, 70 new cases of Covid-19 were announced in Ireland; yesterday there were 211. The current 7-day average in Ireland is over 180 new cases per day and is climbing steadily. Things are similar, if not worse, elsewhere in Europe. as countries struggle to contain the pandemic while simultaneously attempting to reopen their economies. We are heading towards a very difficult autumn, with a large second peak of infection definitely on the cards. Who knows how this will turn out?

The word ‘semester’ is derived from the Latin for ‘six months’ but the term now applies almost exclusively to half a university teaching year, usually more like four months.

I’m looking ahead to the next teaching semester at Maynooth University, which starts in two weeks. The last time I gave a face-to-face lecture was on the morning of March 12th (a Thursday). Going home that evening I was engulfed by morbid thoughts and wondered if I would ever see the students again. Now we’re making plans for their return to (limited) on-campus teaching. Outline teaching plans have now been published, so returning students will have an idea how things will go. These will be refined as we get a better idea of student numbers. Given the continued increase in Covid-19 cases there is a significant chance of another campus closure at some point which will necessitate going online again but, at least to begin with, our students in Theoretical Physics will be getting 50% or more of the in-person teaching they would have got in a normal year.

Yesterday third-level institutions made their first round of CAO offers. Maynooth’s can be found here. Our offer for MH206 Theoretical Physics & Mathematics is, like many courses around the country, up a bit at 510 points reflecting the increase in high grades in this year’s Leaving Certificate.

We won’t know the final numbers for at another week or more but based on the traffic on Twitter yesterday Maynooth in general seems to be very popular:

Outline teaching plans are available for new students but these will not be finalised until Orientation Week is over and students have registered for their modules, which will not be until Thursday 24th September, just a few days before teaching starts. The weekend of 26th/27th looks like being a very busy one!

Returning to the original theme of the post I have to admit that I haven’t set foot outside Maynooth once in the last six months. I haven’t minded that too much, actually, but one thing I have missed is my weekly trip to the National Concert Hall in Dublin. Last night saw the start of a new season of concerts by the RTE National Symphony Orchestra at the NCH. There is no live audience for these so it’s not the same as being there in person, but watching and listening on the live stream is the next best thing.

Last night’s programme was a very nice one, of music by Mendelssohn Mozart and Beethoven, that not only provided a welcome tonic to the end of a busy week but also provided a great example of how to adapt. I’m glad they’re back and am looking forward to the rest of the season.

R.I.P. Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017)

Posted in Opera with tags , , , on February 13, 2017 by telescoper

I only heard yesterday the very sad news that the fine Swedish operatic tenor Nicolai Gedda passed away on 8th January 2017 at the age of 91.  The news wasn’t announced by his family until February 9th, which explains part of the reason I am so late to post a little tribute. This is from the first recording I ever heard of die Zauberflöte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (made in 1964, conducted by Otto Klemperer) in which Gedda sings Tamino alongside the equally wonderful Gundula Janowitz as Pamina.  This CD played a huge role in getting me interested in Opera, so it is with special sadness but also special admiration that I say farewell to Nicolai Gedda.

R.I.P. Nicolai Gedda (1925-2017)

 

Lacrimosa

Posted in Music with tags , , on June 17, 2016 by telescoper

Mozart died before he could complete his Requiem. And of  this movement, Lacrimosa, only the first eight bars are known to have been written by him. Nevertheless, even a small piece of Mozart’s genius was enough to create a work of tragic beauty which is a suitable tribute for all those whose lives have been cut short. I hope I don’t have to say any more about why I’m posting it now at the end of this  horrible week.

Extraordinary Rendition

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , on May 6, 2016 by telescoper

Here’s something to end the week with: a piece from my favourite Mozart opera, The Magic Flute, in a version that’s itself very rarely heard. Fortunately. This is what Florence Foster Jenkins – the opera singer to end all opera singers – did with Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen. For some reason Sony admits to owning the copyright of this, so you’ll have to click through to Youtube to hear it in its full glory.

Dond’escono quei vortici?

Posted in Education, Opera, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on November 10, 2012 by telescoper

Just time for a quickie today. I seem to be writing that virtualy every day at this time, in fact. Anyway, yesterday I gave the last of a series of lectures on Fluid Dynamics during which I talked a little bit about the Navier-Stokes equation, and introduced the concept of turbulence, topic that Richard Feynman described as “the most important unsolved problem in classical physics”. Given that the origin of turbulence is so poorly understood, I had to cover it all fairly qualitatively but did at least explain that its onset is associated with high values of the Reynold’s Number, an interesting dimensionless number that characterizes the properties of viscous fluid flow in such a way as to bring out the dynamical similarity inherent in the equations. The difficulty is that there is no exact theory that allows one to calculate the critical value of the Reynold’s number and in any particular situation; that has to be determined by experiments, such as this one which shows turbulent vortices (or “eddies”) forming downstream of a cylindrical obstacle placed in flowing fluid. The (laminar) flow upstream, and in regions far from the cylinder, has no vorticity.

What happens is obviously extremely complicated because it involves a huge range of physical scales – the vorticity is generated by very small-scale interactions between the fluid elements and the boundary of the object past which they flow. It’s a very frustrating thing for a physicist, actually, because one’s gut feeling is that it should be possible to figure it out. After all, it’s “just” classical physics. It’s also of great practical importance in a huge range of fields. Nevertheless, despite all the progress in “exotic” field such as particle physics and cosmology, it remains an open question in many respects.

That’s why it’s important to teach undergraduates about it. Physics isn’t just about solved problems. It’s a living subject, and it’s important for students to know those fields where we don’t really know that much about what is going on…

PS. The title is a quotation from the libretto of Mozart’s opera, Don Giovanni, uttered by the eponymous Count as he is dragged down to hell. It translates as “Whence come these vortices?” Pretentious, moi?

Don Giovanni

Posted in Art, Opera with tags , , , , , , on September 24, 2011 by telescoper

Another sign that autumn is nigh is that the opera season has started again, which at least gives me the opportunity to resume my series of occasional opera reviews.

I was planning to go to see the new  Welsh National Opera production of Don Giovanni by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart   last week but was stymied it clashed with the cricket, which turned out to be a day-night game finishing too late to allow me to go to both. Anyway, I was able to get tickets for last night’s performance as well as dispose of last week’s so it all worked out for me in the end.

First night reviews of this production weren’t particularly good – the reviews in the Telegraph and the Guardian are fairly typical – which probably accounted for the fact that the Wales Millennium Centre wasn’t particularly  full even for such an extremely popular opera. I don’t usually pay much attention to reviews myself and I thought the critics were excessively harsh, although some of the points they make are valid.

I won’t repeat the synopsis in detail here because it’s probably familiar to most people likely to read this, even those who aren’t opera buffs. In fact it’s all explained by the subtitle il dissolute punito. We meet the villainous “nobleman” Don Giovanni attempting to molest  Donna Anna after sneaking into the house of the Commendatore, Donna Anna’s father. Don Giovanni is rumbled and confronted by the Commendatore; a duel  ensues which appears to be ending without bloodshed until the Don draws a dagger and murders the Commendatore.

There then follows a series of escapades: attempted seductions, disguises, mistaken identities, narrow escapes, and so on. Typical comic opera stuff in fact, except that it’s not really typical comic opera  because it’s comic opera with music by Mozart and libretto by da Ponte. In other words, it’s genius.

Finally,  Don Giovanni’s past catches up to him. He taunts a statue of the dead Commendatore while seeking refuge in a graveyard. Later, back at Don Giovanni’s  house the statue arrives  and sends Don Giovanni to Hell.

The first impression you get of this production on entering the theatre is the monumental set, which is based (not inappropriately) on the  Gates of Hell by Auguste Rodin (shown left), a huge bronze sculpture that depicts a scene from Dante’s Inferno. What you see on stage, however, is not a simple replica of the Rodin piece, but a series of variations on and extensions of the original artwork. Extra pieces are added to form a walled courtyard, it opens out to form a series of rooms and chambers, and in the end the gates themselves open to take the eponymous villain down to Hell (along with a smoke and fire effect which unfortunately didn’t work very well last night; there wasn’t enough smoke to engulf him as was clearly intended).

The idea of basing the set around this work of art was potentially brilliant but I didn’t think it really worked as well as it might. The reason is that the magic of Mozart’s operas emanates, at least in part, from the huge dramatic contrasts. Don Giovanni certainly has a very dark edge, but it also has a great many lighter comic episodes, some of them bordering on the slapstick. Having this heavy sombre backdrop to everything tended to dampen the swings between light and shade. It’s as if the  production was so obsessed with this one idea, that everything else became subservient to it. What could have been brilliant was just too clumsy. You don’t have to force things so much, especially not with Mozart, especially not with Don Giovanni.

Another criticism I would make concerns David Kempster as Don Giovanni. He certainly sang extremely well, his smoky baritone voice sounding very rakish. However I thought he acted the part too broadly, at times like a pantomime villain, to the extent that he seemed delighted by the theatrical boos he got on his curtain call. He was at times very funny indeed, but again I thought he was a bit forced.

However, if it sounds like I’m being very negative about the performance then I don’t mean to be. Apart from the unnecessarily imposing set, the look of the production is wonderful: the costumes and lighting were beautifully done, and the crypto-Gothic look was appropriately spooky when “spooky” was called for.

David Soar was a really oustanding Leporello; I think the audience agreed with me as he got a huge cheer at the end. Camilla Roberts was excellent as Donna Anna as was Nuccia Focile as Donna Elvira. On the other hand I found Carlo Malinverno a disappointment as the Commendatore. He looked scary enough but his undistinguished and occasionally  wobbly bass voice didn’t have the necessary menace for climactic scene with Don Giovanni near the end. For me it has to be a voice that really reverberates with doom. Few can really pull it off, and Carlo Malinverno isn’t one of them.

A special mention, however, must be made of Samantha Hay, who stepped in at short notice to sing the part of Zerlina owing to the indisposition of Claire Ormshaw. She was absolutely wonderful, with a beautifully crystal-clear voice and engaging stage presence. Well done to her for a performance that was very warmly received by the audience.

Watching the opera last night it struck me again, as it always does listening to Don Giovanni,  just how many great pieces of music there are in it. Whereas most operas can offer at most a few set-pieces, in Don Giovanni they keep coming one after the other for well over three hours. This is Mozart at the very peak of his powers, and  a few blemishes don’t even come close to taking the magic away.

Cosi fan tutte

Posted in Opera with tags , , , , on May 21, 2011 by telescoper

It’s been a long time since I posted an opera review. That’s because neither of the operas offered by Welsh National Opera earlier this year appealed to me very much and since then I’ve been too busy doing other things to take in an opera anywhere else. However, the summer season of WNO has now started so now at last there’s something of an operatic nature to write about. In fact, I was lucky enough to get tickets for the first night of WNO’s new production of Così fan tutte by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and duly went along yesterday evening. The Millennium Centre was pretty full – as you’d expect for a first night of an enduringly popular opera.

In case you weren’t aware, Così fan tutte is a masterpiece of comic opera (or, technically speaking, opera buffa) written in collaboration with Lorenzo da Ponte who also wrote the libretti for Don Giovanni and The Marriage of Figaro. The title can be loosely translated as “That’s how all women behave”; the -e on “tutte” indicates a feminine plural. The plot -such as it is – revolves around two pays of lovers: Guglielmo, who is engaged to Fiordiligi, and Ferrando, who is engaged to Fiordiligi’s sister, Dorabella. Both Guglielmo and Ferrando are sailors. All four are friends with the scheming Don Alfonso, who orchestrates the unfolding events, presumably for his own amusement.

Don Alfonso suggests to Ferrando and Guglielmo that their beloved fiancées are not as faithful as they seem to imagine and the three agree a wager. Ferrando and Guglielmo pretend that they’ve been called up for active service. Don Alfonso joins Fiordiligi and Dorabella in the sumptuous trio Soave sia il vento as the men appear to sail off for battle. The ladies are heartbroken and pledge fidelity to their departed lovers. However, the two sailors soon return in disguise in order to attempt their seduction. After various goings-on the men succeed in seducing each others fiancees and a mock wedding is staged. The marriage is interrupted by the sound of the sailors’ return. After the quickest of quick changes the two men re-appear without their disguises and confront their unfaithful women. Don Alfonso has won his bet.

Like all opera buffa the plot sounds faintly ridiculous – which it is – but of course the key to its success as a piece is not just the comic action, but also the gorgeous music which carries it along. In this particular opera there’s almost no end to the musical loveliness as Mozart has each principal singing alone, and in combinations of twos and threes. Mozart’s writing for two, three or four voices is truly wonderful to listen to, and there are many fine examples of such in this opera.

In this production Guglielmo and Ferrando are sailors who are stationed in a British seaside resort, complete with promenade, pier, Punch & Judy show and Italian ice-cream parlour (named Botticelli‘s). This setting takes  it quite a long way downmarket  compared to the original location of Naples, especially when the Butlins-style redcoats appear, and this is carried through to the much coarser way the comedy is handled than you find in many productions of this piece. This approach does provide enjoyable moments of slapstick hilarity but also causes some difficulties.

For example, it is key to this opera that the character of Don Alfonso has to have some sort of power over the four main protagonists. In other words, it has to be credible that they believe what he says and go along with his suggestions. In this production, however, Don Alfonso is meant to be a “local pier entertainer” – in fact he actually looks more like Flash Harry. I found it hard to accept that anyone would believe anything that this particularly dodgy spiv had to say, and his interaction with the two ladies in particular lacked all credibility.

Another thing I didn’t like was the way the opening of the piece was handled. Like most of Mozart’s operas, Così fan tutte is blessed with a splendid overture, perhaps not as brilliant the other Da Ponte operas but full of playful exuberance and very much worth listening to. You can call me old-fashioned, but I do like to hear the overture, preferably with an empty stage or with the curtain down. In this production, however, as soon as the overture started, the stage began to fill with various extras doing various (admittedly comic) things. A particularly funny sequence of people walking dogs backwards and forwards got a huge laugh, but which drowned out the music entirely. What a waste.

I suppose the overall point I’m trying to make is that this production tried too hard to get cheap laughs. It’s just not necessary to milk it like that – it’s funny enough anyway!

However, these are relatively small objections. I’ll temper them by adding that some of the comedy in this production is inspired. Ferrando wore a false nose that made him look like Barry Manilow and Guglielmo’s false moustache gave him the appearance of Comrade Stalin. The latter looked particularly louche in white tennis shorts and ghastly red blazer.

Neal Davies (baritone) was Don Alfonso, amusingly played but lacking the deep sonority in his voice really needed to carry the role off. Ferrando was played by Robin Tritschler (tenor), whose light agile voice is ideal.  Gary Griffiths (baritone) as Guglielmo was outstanding, with an excellent voice and obvious flair for the comic touches. Fiordiligi (Camilla Roberts) and Dorabella (Helen Lepalaan) were also good. Despina – a waitress in Botticelli’s ice-cream parlour and Don Alfonso’s accomplice (often in disguise) – was pert and feisty but her voice lacked projection; at times she was barely audible.

Anyway, in view of the fact that the comedy dog-walking interfered with last night’s overture I thought I’d end  by posting a version here. I love the way that little phrase is thrown around among the wind instruments!

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Soave sia il vento

Posted in Opera with tags , , on February 5, 2011 by telescoper

I don’t know what it’s been like down your way over the past couple of days but it’s been very windy around these parts. In fact I had to spend a couple of hours this afternoon repairing the damage done to my garden by a lump of a tree that fell down during Friday on account of the gales. If you’ve been affected by the stormy weather yourself I offer you this beautiful performance of the trio Soave sia il vento from Mozart’s Cosi fan Tutte as compensation.

Soave sia il vento,
Tranquilla sia l’onda,
Ed ogni elemento
Benigno risponda
Ai nostri  desir

Hoping I’ve got the subjunctives right I’ll translate this as

May the wind be gentle,
may the waves be calm,
and may every one of the elements
respond warmly
to our desire


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Extraordinary Rendition

Posted in Music, Opera with tags , , , , on January 10, 2011 by telescoper

BBC Radio 3 is now well into its celebration of the Genius of Mozart, which involves playing every note he wrote over 12 days. I’m a devout admirer of Mozart, but I’m not sure that uninterrupted diet like this is actually a good idea. It is in danger of doing something that I wouldn’t previously have thought possible – making me bored of Mozart.

I’m a firm believer that you should just an artist, composer, musician (or scientist, for that matter) by his or her best work and by that reckoning Mozart is among the greatest of them all. But I have to say among the glorious masterpieces there’s also quite a lot of quite dull stuff. Take the symphonies, for example. Mozart wrote his First Symphony when he was only 8 years old. That fact on its own makes the work worth listening to. However, in my humble opinion, you can fast forward through at least twenty of the following compositions before finding one that’s really worth listening to, and even further before you find the really brilliant ones.

I’m not saying that the lesser works of Mozart shouldn’t be played. In a balanced programme, contrasted with works by other composers, they are interesting to listen to. It’s good to hear the rarely performed works from time to time, if only to understand why they are rarely performed. However, with only Mozart on offer day after day the effect is only to lessen the impact of the great works by surrounding them with hour after hour of lower quality music. I don’t think the BBC has done the Mozart legacy any favours by revealing that he actually wrote too much music, a lot of it not particularly good.

After that, I’m about to duck back down below the parapet but before I do, I thought I’d make my contribution to the ongoing Mozartfest with a piece from my favourite Mozart opera, The Magic Flute, in a version that’s itself very rarely heard. Fortunately. This is what Florence Foster Jenkins – the opera singer to end all opera singers – did with Der Hölle Rache kocht in meinem Herzen. For some reason Sony admits to owning the copyright of this, so you’ll have to click through to Youtube to hear it in its full glory.


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The Magic Flute

Posted in Opera with tags , , on September 25, 2010 by telescoper

At the end of a very busy week I was wondering if I’d have the energy to cope with a Friday night at the Opera, but last night’s performance of The Magic Flute by Welsh National Opera was definitely worth making the effort. It was a revival of a production first performed in 2005, sung in English to a very witty translation by Jeremy Sams of the original German libretto.

I have actually reviewed the Magic Flute before (at ENO) and have also written about my theory that it’s all about particle physics (here). I’ll just repeat here that this gloriously silly piece is one of my absolute favourite operas and I’ve now seen (I think) nine productions of it in various locations. This one was a lot of fun, well sung and imaginatively directed. I particularly enjoyed the references to surrealist art; the main set consisted of wooden doors embedded in a cloud-flecked blue sky, a clear reference to Magritte; and the monster that assails Tamino at the start was a  lobster, a symbol associated with many works by Salvador Dali although not usually such a large one as this!

The plot, such as it is, is as follows. A prince, Tamino, is rescued from a monster (a giant lobster) by three Ladies who work for the Queen of the Night. He then meets Papageno, a comical bird-catcher replet with feathery costume, nets and cages. The two are sent to find Pamina, the Queen’s daughter, whom they are told has been abducted and imprisoned by a chap called Sarastro. The unlikely pair are given a magic flute and a set of magic bells to help them. Guided by three boys they journey to Sarastro’s realm, where there lives a brotherhood of men ruled by wisdom. Tamino learns that Sarastro isn’t in fact the evildoer he has been portrayed and Sarastro convinces the dynamic duo to join the brotherhood by passing a series of trials. Papageno flunks, but succeeds in getting what he really wants, a girlfriend (Papagena). Tamino succeeds and is united with Pamina. Together they endure the final ordeals of fire and water and are united in love. The forces of light prevail over darkness, and they all live happily ever after.

Of course the plot doesn’t really make any sense by itself, but it’s not really supposed to – it’s full of Masonic symbolism and is rooted in a much older tradition of musical drama that provides context but which you don’t need to know about in order to enjoy the music. What is so very special about the Magic Flute however is that it is so unapologetically absurd that it somehow ends up seeming immensely profound. I’m reminded of the old proverb “If a fool will persist in his folly he may become wise”. I think it’s daft, but in the same way that life is daft and that’s why it’s so universally popular. As in his other great operas you also experience Mozart’s uncanny ability to produce moments of robust comedy bordering on the slapstick followed by moving expressions of the deepest emotion. Perfect examples of the former last night were provided by the hilarious scene in which Tamino’s magic flute charms a motley variety of animals, including a very tarty bird, and also the priceless moment when the magic bells turn away the evil Monostatos and his henchmen by making them dance off like ballerinas, which was a hoot. By contrast, Pamina’s solo aria in Act II where she thinks Tamino has spurned her, beautifully sung by Elizabeth Watts, was heartbreakingl in its sincerity.

I think all the principals were pretty good, although Tim Mirfin’s Sarastro was lacking in the gravitas that only a true basso profundo can supply. Laure Meloy as the Queen of the Night negotiated the difficult coloratura passages and duly hit her top F, although it was little more than a squeak if truth be told. At times her voice sounded like it was coming into and going out of focus, but she had real stage presence and looked fabulous in a wonderful frock. Neal Davies was a genial Papageno, Elizabeth Watts an outstanding Pamina. A special mention must be made of the three boys (actually played by two groups: Guy Roberts/Rory Turnbull, Robert Field/Henry Payne, and Erwan Hughes/Josh Morgan; I don’t know which was which last night). These parts are often considered too demanding to be sung by boys so are frequently done by female singers. I thought the boys last night were absolutely wonderful, although I suspect they may have been miked as they produced unusual power.

All in all, an excellent night out. I think I could do with some of those magic bells at the Board of Studies on Monday morning…


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