Music for a Weary World

Let’s face it, the world is a scary place right now. Countless public places—schools, theme parks, theaters, churches—have shut their doors. The economy teeters dangerously on the brink of collapse. People are panic buying everything from canned goods to hand sanitizer. (If you are one of those people panic buying toilet paper, stop it!!) The coronavirus pandemic has disrupted billions of lives and spurred a persistent sense of dread, thanks in no small part to the endless deluge of news and information (and misinformation) on TV and social media.

The classical music world has also been deeply affected by this pandemic. Organizations around the globe have canceled concerts, operas, tours, festivals, and other events, many of which took years to plan. However, there are glimmers of hope and generosity everywhere. Some orchestras and opera houses are rebroadcasting recent performances (Seattle Symphony, Metropolitan Opera). Others have performed concerts to empty halls, live-streaming them on social media or other platforms (Philadelphia Orchestra, Berlin Philharmonic). To top it all off, the Berlin Philharmonic is offering free, 30-day access to its incredible Digital Concert Hall. (Check it out—it’s 100% worth it.) It’s clear that classical music—indeed, music as a whole—will continue to be a source of life, comfort, and unity through these uncertain times. Maybe this (hopefully) short void of live music will even inspire new audiences and spark a revitalization of the art form, coaxing it from its still all-too-stuffy confines and into a larger world. Wishful thinking perhaps, but who knows?

To help combat the anxieties of this pandemic, I have curated a 5-hour (!) Spotify playlist filled with some of my favorite choral works, chamber pieces, concerto movements, and more. Though I am a staunch believer that classical music is so much more than just “nice chill-out music,” this is music that, to me, exudes peace, composure, and reverence (with a few lighter selections thrown in for good measure). May this be a small, but welcome antidote for our crazy world, and may we come out of this a little stronger, a little kinder, and a little more grateful than before.

Krumping with Rameau

As I stated in my November 2018 post “Debussy + Trampoline (shameless self-plug!), in the art world, there are times when the combination of two or more dissimilar elements can lead to something truly astonishing and transporting.

Another case in point: this incredible production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s 1735 opera Les Indes galantes. Rameau’s work is technically an opéra-ballet, which unites both sung and danced elements to create a dramatic whole. In this particular staging, though (from the Paris Opera in fall 2019), Baroque music and period instruments lives in harmony with… krumping? Yup. For their updated reimagining, film director Clément Cogitore and choreographer Bintou Dembélé chose to use modern dance styles throughout the opera instead of historically-accurate ballet.

The original opera is, quite frankly, a bit of a Eurocentric (i.e., racist) mess when considered from a modern standpoint. The plot follows various love stories set in “exotic” locations (the Ottoman Empire, Peru, Persia, North America) and ends with a peaceful coming-together of Europeans and Native Americans courtesy of a “savage” dance. Yikes and double yikes. However, this modern staging somehow appears to transcend all of that, more bluntly addressing issues of prejudice, otherness, and what it truly means to be a global community.

At the very least, though, it’s a mesmerizing production to watch. Check out the two clips below and see for yourself…

Bach’s Delectable “Coffee Cantata”

J.S. Bach never wrote any operas, but his secular Cantata—Schweigt stille, plaudert nicht, BWV 211—is probably the closest we’ll get to hearing what a Bach opera could have been like. Commonly known as the “Coffee Cantata,” this mini drama for small orchestra and three singers was likely first presented in 1735, at the Café Zimmermann in Leipzig. Coffee drinking was the new craze sweeping Europe, but for some, the drink was still controversial, as its side effects were not fully known yet. (If only they could fast-forward to the twenty-first century!)

Bach’s Coffee Cantata is charming, humorous, and, yes, a tad ridiculous. The plot follows a young woman (Lieschen) who is chastised by her father (Schlendrian) for her coffee-drinking habit. Schlendrian threatens to take away Lieschen’s possessions and privileges in an attempt to win her obedience but to no avail. Finally, when the father vows to prevent his daughter from marrying, Lieschen agrees to give up coffee. But, Lieschen has one final trick up her sleeve: she tells potential husbands that their marriage contract has to allow her to drink coffee whenever she desires.

The moral of the story comes in the final chorus:

Cats do not give up mousing,
girls remain coffee-sisters.
The mother adores her coffee-habit,
and grandma also drank it,
so who can blame the daughters!

Pamela Dellal

Recently, the Netherlands Bach Society—who is in the midst of a multi-year project to create high-quality video recordings of Bach’s works—mounted a staged version of the Coffee Cantata. The results, seen below, are delightful and only amplify the charms and humor of what is perhaps Bach’s quirkiest work.

An English translation of the Cantata’s German text can be found here.