One man's madness

Chatter, Sept. 14

An opera for one singer may sound like a lunatic idea, but it has a long history — the earliest examples date back to the 1760s — and boasts several famous examples, including Expectation (Erwartung) by Arnold Schoenberg and The Human Voice (La voix humaine) by Francis Poulenc.

The most infamous such monodrama, without a doubt, is Peter Maxwell Davies’ Eight Songs for a Mad King, which was a succès de scandale when it premiered 50 years ago. The “Mad King” was England’s George III, whose later years were marked by periods of intense physical suffering and mental anguish. In the opera, he tries to teach his finches to perform eight songs with which he’s obsessed, with texts drawn, in part, from the real King George’s manic speeches.

At the 1969 premiere, the six instrumentalists performed in giant birdcages, at times representing the birds and at other times engaging in extended dialogues with the king. The vocal part, in particular, was revolutionary, spanning more than five octaves (two is the normal range in opera) and requiring an enormous range of verbal and nonverbal sounds, ranging from yelps, howls, and grunts to multiple notes sung simultaneously.

Eight Songs is now recognized as a classic of contemporary music theater and it’s coming to SITE Santa Fe on Saturday, Sept. 14, thanks to the indefatigable Chatter ensemble and its co-founder/artistic director/violinist David Felberg. “When it premiered, it was considered almost unperformable,” Felberg says. “Now our ability to digest this music is much higher than it used to be. There are lots of other pieces just as difficult or harder. It’s certainly still a challenge, though. The whole group will have more than 15 hours of rehearsal together for this 30-minute work.

“We’re performing it semi-staged in one of SITE Santa Fe’s galleries, which has a nice acoustic and an attractive ambiance,” he continues. We’ll probably start with a violin sonata by Handel, who was King George’s favorite composer, and then segue into Eight Songs.”

The fearsome vocal part will be tackled by baritone Michael Hix, an associate professor of voice at the University of New Mexico. His wide-ranging roles include Grosvenor in Patience, Germont in La traviata, and Nick Shadow in The Rake’s Progress. He’s also the bass soloist in the Santa Fe Symphony’s upcoming Messiah, and a Desert Chorale member for its December concerts.

Eight Songs for a Mad King has been on my bucket list for 15 or 20 years,” says Hix. “I’m really drawn to musical colors, especially vocal colors. Some singers love the text, some love making a beautiful sound, but I’m fascinated by seeing how many different sounds I can make. Of course, I wondered whether I’d ever have the opportunity to sing it, until I suggested it as a possibility for Chatter, and David said yes.

“When I bought the score and opened it for the first time, I just freaked out,” Hix said. “There’s no way, I thought. Fortunately, I ended up talking with Lucy Shelton. She’s a mentor of mine who’s famous for her facility with contemporary music, and she said to do what I can to make the piece my own. Don’t try to slavishly reproduce what’s on the page, but inhabit the character, let the sounds come from that process, and be guided by the composer’s ideas behind the notation.”

This is very emotional and dramatic music, “far from the sterile, abstract modernism of so much from that era,” he said. “I think audience members will come away from the performance saying, ‘That was very bizarre and incredibly moving.’ ”

Eight Songs for a Mad King will be performed at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14, at SITE Santa Fe, 1606 Paseo de Peralta. Tickets are $15, with discounts for students and those under age 30, in advance from or at the door.

Two brothers tied up in bows

Santa Fe Symphony, Sept. 15

When Guillermo Figueroa contemplates conducting the Santa Fe Symphony’s season-opening concert, what he’d really like to have is “a soloist with one brain and four hands. The playing,” he said, “should be totally in sync throughout, identical in vibrato, intonation, bowing style, dynamics, and articulation. So often you hear violinists with completely different points of view who are just thrown together for a concert.”

While he can’t exactly have his wish, at least not yet, Figueroa may have found the next best thing — Canadian brothers Timothy and Nikki Chooi. Older brother Nikki has been concertmaster of New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, as well as a frequent performer at the Marlboro Festival, Ravinia Festival, and La Jolla Summerfest, and a soloist with the orchestras of Montréal, Winnipeg, Calgary, Hong Kong, and St. Petersburg, Russia. Timothy has been scooping up major prizes and awards, including first prize at the 2018 Joseph Joachim International Violin Competition, first prize in the 2018 Schadt String Competition, and second prize at the 2019 Queen Elisabeth Competition in Belgium.

Daniel Crupi, the symphony’s new executive director, is especially enthusiastic about composer Sheridan Seyfried’s 2017 Concerto for Two Violins and Orchestra, as you would hope from someone who sees increasing the amount of new American music as a top priority. “There’s a wonderful contrast between this new piece and the Vivaldi double concerto in A minor that opens the program,” he says. “Seyfried’s concerto was written specifically for the Chooi brothers, who often perform together. In part, it’s a musical representation of their relationship. Stylistically, it starts as a mash-up of the lyricism and passion of Brahms and Sibelius, then goes in some surprising directions and ends with the driving rhythms and folk nature of bluegrass.”

The concert ends with Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4. It’s one of the most popular works in the orchestral repertory and was inspired by Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. “They share the theme of fate,” says Figueroa. “There’s a thunderous statement of the musical motif for fate at the beginning of the symphony, and it returns in the final movement, where it’s triumphantly transformed at the end. In between are lots of opportunities that showcase the sections in the orchestra and some of the principal players as soloists.”

“Double Chooi” will be performed at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 15, at the Lensic Performing Arts Center, 211 W. San Francisco Street. Tickets are $22 to $80, with student discounts available. — Mark Tiarks


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