By James David Jacobs | Thursday, January 17, 2013
A scene from "33 Variations" at Lyric Stage Co. (photo by Henry Lussier, courtesy of Lyric Stage Co.)
Playwright Moises Kaufman was listening to a classical radio station in New York when he heard something about Beethoven's obsession with variation form.
So he stopped at Tower Records, where he asked the clerk about it. When the clerk told him the story of the Diabelli Variations, as Kaufman himself has put it, "I heard the story of my next play."
Moises Kaufman has made a career out of creating plays that are quasi-documentaries. They deconstruct a real-life event and its impact on a community, such as the murder of Matthew Shepard in "The Laramie Project," or the trials of Oscar Wilde in "Gross Indecency."
Much of the dialogue in these plays are taken directly from primary sources like newspaper articles and trial transcripts. "33 Variations" continues on that path and adds a new element. The story of how Beethoven came to compose the Diabelli Variations is rendered as faithfully as possible, with much of the dialogue taken from Beethoven's conversation books and Anton Schindler's biography. It also addresses the issue of how truthful either of those sources really are.
But Kaufman introduces an entirely fictional character to the story, one who lives in the present day and who serves as a kind of envoy for a modern audience into Beethoven's world. This character, Dr. Katherine Brandt, also becomes the protagonist in a searing personal drama that takes the idea of "variation form" to a level of deep emotional resonance.
At Lyric Stage Co. of Boston, Paula Plum plays Dr. Brandt, a musicologist who journeys to Bonn in order to inspect Beethoven's sketchbooks for the Diabelli Variations as research for a monograph she is preparing. She's determined to answer the question that has puzzled scholars since the work was published: why would Beethoven, who in the years 1819-1823 had more important commissions to fulfill, severe health problems, and a devastating legal dispute with his relatives, wreak havoc with his personal and professional relationships in order to write 33 variations on a theme he apparently didn't like, just to satsify his publisher's silly vanity project?
To those close to Dr. Brandt, though, the question becomes: why does Katherine, whose body is rapidly deteriorating from Lou Gehrig's disease, forgo what may be her final chance to forge a relationship with her daughter in order to spend her last days investigating Beethoven?
The action of the play alternates between the present and the past, letting the audience see the parallels between the predicaments of Katherine Brandt and Ludwig van Beethoven (played by James Andreassi). I visited Lyric Stage Co. to learn more from both Paula Plum and James Andreassi. To hear the conversation and learn more about the play, click on "Listen" above.
“Any good crusade requires singing,” reformers like to say, and in the 19th Century, no cause was more righteous than in the decades-long crusade to abolish slavery.
As WGBH’s American Experience presents The Abolitionists on television, Classical New England brings you Let Freedom Sing: The Music of The Abolitionists. To hear the program, click on "Listen" above.
Let Freedom Sing, hosted by NPR’s Noah Adams, chronicles of the idealistic artists, uncompromising personalities, and powerful music of the era, and looks at how these forces combined to turn abolitionism from a scorned fringe movement into a nation-changing force.
Hutchinson Family Singers (1845; unknown artist; from the Metropolitan Museum, New York, via Wikimedia Commons)
Aided by Vanderbilt and Middle Tennessee State University musicologist Dale Cockrell, Let Freedom Sing profiles:
Henry Russell, the barnstorming Anglo-Jewish pianist and singer dubbed the master of “chutzpah and huzzah,”
Elliott Carter, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner and one of the most signifcant musical voices of the last century, has died at the age of 103.
Carter's music was rigorously built on highly elaborate systems, but it did not represent complexity for its own sake. Rather, it challenged listeners to hear sounds in new ways. The result was music that spoke to both the head and heart, with a distinct humanity that matched the personality of its creator.
Elliott Carter was born in New York on Dec. 11, 1908. He knew Charles Ives, the great American experimentalist composer, who encouraged the younger composer. After studying literature at Harvard University, he moved to Paris to study with Nadia Boulanger, who taught many of the greatest composers and musicians of the Twentieth Century. Upon returning to the U.S., he first lived in Cambridge, Mass., and then settled in New York City.
In 2008, the music world celebrated Carter's centenary with many concerts all over the world. That summer at Tanglewood, the entire Festival of Contemporary Music was devoted to Carter.
In October, one of Carter's true champions, pianist Ursula Oppens, visited our Fraser Performance Studio with two of Carter's works: 90+ and the Piano Sonata.
Also in 2008, Boston Symphony Orchestra Principal Flutist Elizabeth Rowe gave the American premiere of Carter's Flute Concerto, a co-commission of the Jerusalem International Chamber Music Festival, Berlin Philharmonic, and Boston Symphony Orchestra.
By James David Jacobs | Monday, November 5, 2012
Thomas Hampson on the stage of Sanders Theatre, Oct. 6, 2012 (photo courtesy of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences)
Exactly one month before Election Day, October 6, 2012, I witnessed another periodic rite that dates back to the beginning of the republic: the Induction Ceremony of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences. The collective brilliance of the population of Sanders that day was truly staggering.
That afternoon, I had a front-row seat at Harvard's historic Sanders Theatre, a monument to the wisdom and contributions of generations past. It was a more-than-appropriate setting for honoring wisdom and contributions of our own time.
While there were a few household-name celebrities in attendance, the currency for the day was not fame per se, but accomplishment and influence in a specific discipline. The gathering at Sanders was the 1987th Stated Meeting of an organization that has been in existence since the very beginning of the United States, and whose original members included many of its founding fathers.
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences was founded in 1780, based on an idea proposed the year before by the nation’s future Second President John Adams in the Philosophy Chamber of Harvard College. Its original motto, Sub Libertate Florent, conveys the idea that arts and sciences flourish best in an atmosphere of freedom. Its current motto, “Cherishing Knowledge – Shaping the Future” describes what the Academy has become, and how over time it has put Adams’ original idea into action – to provide a space in which the nation’s leaders in the arts, sciences and humanities can gather to collaborate on an interdisciplinary approach to the challenges facing the country and the world. In the words of the Academy's charter, the "end and design of the institution is ... to cultivate every art and science which may tend to advance the interest, honour, dignity, and happiness of a free, independent, and virtuous people."
Thus the people I witnessed taking the stage that Saturday afternoon were participating in an unbroken tradition of service that is inextricably tied to the history and progress of the country itself. There was a sense of awe among all the participants, a feeling that, for all their other accolades and accomplishments, this was something truly profound and larger than themselves.
The ceremony began with the sound of bagpipes as the Boston Police Gaelic Column of Pipes and Drums marched through the audience. Louis W. Cabot, the Chair of the Academy’s Board and Trust (elected to the Academy in 1958), welcomed the inductees, invoking John Adams’s characterization of them as “thinkers and doers.” Youth Pro Musica, a children’s choir led by Robert Barney, took the stage to sing “America the Beautiful., right before Academy President Leslie Cohen Berlowitz, called the meeting to order with the bang of her gavel. Here is her summation of the Academy’s history and mission:
Berlowitz then introduced 2011 inductee Daniel Day-Lewis(“Winner of two other Academy Awards,” as Berlowitz dryly put it), who read documents by Washington and Lincoln:
Secretary of the Academy Jerrold Meinwaldtook the stage to talk about the Academy’s traditions, and introduced wife and husband Bonnie Berger (from MIT, one of that day’s inductees in Mathematics) and Tom Leighton (a member of the Academy’s governing board) to read from the letters of John and Abigail Adams:
We then got to the real business of the day: the induction of the members, organized into five Classes. The first Class, Mathematical and Physical Sciences, numbered 52 inductees. Speaker was Steven H. Strogatz of Cornell University, who called Class I “the most romantic class” and told a touching “love story” of how he came to pursue mathematics: :
The speaker for Class II: Biological Sciences (44 inductees) was Margaret J. McFall-Ngai of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She spoke of recent developments in microbiology that she termed “revolutionary.”
The prominent Washington lawyer and Supreme Court advocate Maureen E. Mahoney, spoke on behalf of the 37 inductees of Class III: Social Sciences. Mahoney opened her remarks by declaring, “y’all may want to know that you’re a very intimidating audience – but not quite as intimidating as Justice Scalia.” She then gave her perspective on John Roberts’ casting of the deciding vote to uphold the core provisions of the Affordable Care Act.
Class V: Public Affairs, Business, and Administration (40 inductees – Hillary Rodham Clinton didn’t show up, but Sanford Weill did) was represented by Penny Pritzker,who talked about the importance of education in her own family’s rise to success from impoverished immigrants to extremely successful entrepreneurs, and how she is working to ensure that today’s children have the same opportunities to succeed that she did: “I refuse to accept a future in which stories like ours are a thing of the past.”
The program continued with a performance by baritone Thomas Hampson (2010 inductee). Hampson has been working with the Library of Congress on the “Song of America Project”, exploring the nation’s history and spirit through its songs, from the 1700s to the present day. Accompanied at the piano by NEC faculty member Tanya Blaich, Hampson sang three of his discoveries through this project: “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” by Francis Hopkinson, one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence; “Ethiopia Saluting the Colors”, a setting of the Walt Whitman poem by the great African-American composer Henry Burleigh; and Michael Daugherty’s setting of Lincoln’s “Letter to Mrs. Bixby”, all three of which are discussed by Hampson before the performance:
The event ended with Hampson leading a sing-along of “Battle Hymn of the Republic.”
As we reflect on the conclusion of another Presidential campaign, no matter which votes you cast, and no matter what your perspective is on our institutions, it is important to remember that this country has always engaged in a cycle of re-invention, re-assessment, and seemingly insurmountable crises messily resolved and followed by periods of prosperity.
One constantly marvels at how prescient the founders were at anticipating both the peaks and valleys of the American experiment. The Academy of Arts and Sciences is yet another example of how the founders anticipated our needs, providing an ongoing repository of wisdom and experience from which we will continue to draw for many years to come.