A Ghost Light Podcast Extra!

Music, musicians, and a healthy dose of ghost stories: This is what our podcast The Ghost Light is all about! After the stage is dark and everyone has gone home, general manager Jeff Counts digs deep into classical music gets juicy stories from acclaimed musicians. As a special treat for our loyal Ghost Light fans, you can read this transcript of his interview with Concertmaster Madeline Adkins:

Jeff: So, Madeline, tell us about this incredible instrument you’re playing now.

Madeline: It’s really very exciting. As you know, for the past 5 years I was playing on Marin Alsop’s Guadagnini, which she graciously allowed me to bring to Utah for my first season.  I took it into the shop of my friend, violin maker John Young, here in SLC to be cleaned up in preparation for its return and while discussing what I might possibly do next, he said “A friend of mine owns a beautiful Guad and may be looking to lend it to the right person.”

Jeff: You’re kidding. That almost seems like fate.

Madeline: I know! Turns out, John was a longtime friend of Jacques Israelievitch, the concertmaster of Toronto Symphony for 20 years and St. Louis before that. Sadly, Jacques died in 2015 from cancer at the quite young age of 67. His wife Gabrielle had been reluctant to loan the instrument at first, as she felt like this was the embodiment of Jacques and couldn’t bear to part with it. But she was thinking it’d be best for the instrument to be played.

Jeff: What can you tell us about Jacques?

Madeline: He came to the US as a teenager when his family’s business in France was destroyed during a wave of anti-semitism. On the plane over he met Oistrakh, if you can believe it! Anyhow, he bought this Guadaganini (the “ex-Chardon”) when he got his first concertmaster job in St. Louis and, as since he was the recipient of incredible generosity throughout his career and always maintained a commitment to teaching and mentoring the next generation of musicians, Gabrielle felt compelled to pay it forward.

Jeff: Incredible. So, you went to meet Gabrielle. What is she like?

Madeline: Gabrielle Israelievitch is an acclaimed children’s book author, psychologist, and artist. A real Renaissance woman. She is truly an incredible spirit. We spent several hours speaking about Jacques and then it came time to play the instrument for the first time. It was right there in the living room, where Jacques had taught so many students over the years, and in fact only feet from where he had played the violin for the last time. The first notes I played were the slow movement of Bruch. Almost instantly, Gabrielle was in tears. “It sounds  just like Jacques” John (who was with me) said. Gabrielle face-timed with one of her sons so he could hear. The experience was incredibly emotional for all.

Jeff: I can imagine that this moment will always be one of the highlights of your career.

Madeline: Of my life! When I brought it back to Utah, that weekend was my first Scheherezade with the Utah Symphony. Although I only had played the violin for two days, that opening E of the piece was such a gorgeous note that I forged ahead and decided to make the switch immediately. So that weekend, only four days after playing the instrument for the first time, and on what would have been Jacques’ 69th birthday, I played Scheherezade. In my dressing room was a huge bouquet of flowers. The note read “Thank you from Jacques.”

Jeff: What an honor for you and for the Utah Symphony.

Madeline: It’s humbling. And also thrilling. I can’t wait to perform a concerto on this instrument!

We know you’re dying for more! Subscribe and listen to The Ghost Light here

Jeff Counts is Vice President of Operations and General Manager of Utah Symphony. He was program annotator for Utah Symphony from 2010 to 2014 and has been writing articles for Utah Opera for 6 years.

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Imaginary Interview with Monsieur Triboulet – Jester to King Francis I.

Research into the source material for Rigoletto led me on a relatively uneventful journey. It’s a straight-line road with only a single possible destination – Victor Hugo and his tragic play Le roi s’amuse. Verdi and his librettist Piave created such a respectfully faithful operatic version of the original drama that the comparisons scene to scene and character to character are essentially one to one and require no particular insight to parse at first glance. As I read through the Hugo work, though, I found myself fascinated with the malignant court jester Triboulet and began to understand Verdi’s particular attraction to his part in the tale. Verdi considered Triboulet a “creation worthy of Shakespeare” and after judiciously renaming him Rigoletto (based on the French rigoler – to laugh) he named the opera, and hence the entire story, after him.

While I listened later to the fantastic music of the opera and read the words of its main character, my mind kept going back to Triboulet, not Hugo’s character but the actual historical figure he was based on and the true headwaters of the inspiration that led to Rigoletto. Triboulet’s sad life among the nobility of 15th/16th century France must have been a constantly fitful volley between their laughter and scorn. His job, such as it was, included general entertainment, some occasional palace intrigue and, when the courtiers’ whims dictated, a limited taste of the privileged class. He was perfect for it, built for it in fact. His rapier wit made them howl. His finesse in the arts of foul play made him indispensable during their political sparring matches. And his unfortunate physical deformities required them to keep him at a comfortable, expensively-clad arm’s length. He was their fool, their hilarious, spiteful hunchbacked fool.

I had so many questions for him. What kind of toll does it take to suffer such disdain? And to know that your own actions will eventually make you worthy of it? And to do it all anyhow though you know enough secrets about the petty horrible people you work for to keep your beloved daughter hidden from them? Hugo’s Triboulet, like his more modern incarnation Rigoletto, was as much the author as victim of his personal tragedy. If only I could have asked him (the real one) about it. I understood him, I believed, and if I could have simply interviewed him, it might well have gone a little something like…

JC: So, when did you begin…performing for King Francis I?

Triboulet: It started before him actually, with King Louis XII. His majesty heard that his footmen were antagonizing the village idiot – me – and demanded I be presented to him. I suppose I…well, impressed him.

JC: Just like that? He made you his jester on the spot?

Triboulet: Of course. Look at me.

JC: Yeah, we should talk about that.

Triboulet: What’s to discuss? It is my lucky birthright to look as I do. The absurdly small size of my head is due to a condition called microcephaly. The hump is real too but, in truth, I do favor it a bit for effect. I was truly born to this life. This blessed life.

JC: I…okay. Was it different with Francis I? Your role in the court?

Triboulet: Role? With Louis I was a mere buffoon, a curiosity. Francis made me necessary. I was his Iago, more present in court than his chief consort.

JC: Really? Did you begin to feel like you were one of them? The nobility?

Triboulet: Of course! I spread their rumors for them. I delivered their insults when they feared to. I was the all-knowing shadow during all of their ridiculous jealousies. You don’t trust that sort of role to the fool. That is the function of a colleague.

JC: You can’t truly believe that.

Triboulet: No?

JC: No. You were a pet to them. They mocked you openly. Come on, why else would you have worked so hard to keep your daughter a secret?

Triboulet: You have me confused with Monsieur Hugo’s and Maestro Verdi’s versions of me. Sadly, I was childless.

JC: Oh…I apologize…

Triboulet: But had I been a father – and of a daughter no less – rest assured that I would have kept her away from the palace at all costs.

JC: Why?

Triboulet: It was no place for her. It was a place for vipers.

JC: Exactly, vipers! Including, by all accounts, you by the time King Francis began to tire of you.

Triboulet: Maybe so, maybe so. But I survived did I not?

JC: But at what cost? They treated every aspect of your existence with such smiling disgust. Not even your daughter was out of bounds. It drove you to arrange a murder!

Triboulet: Again, sir, you mistake me for…

JC: Right, sorry. At least please tell me how you survived. What did you have to become to endure it for so long, through two kings and countless other noble men?

Triboulet: Hmm. That question gives me pause.

JC: Take your time.

Triboulet: No, no. Time is something I want no more of. I will answer thusly: My tears were no less salty than their spit.

JC: I’m not sure I…

Triboulet: Look, you called my bluff correctly before. I was never their colleague. I was only their jester. But even a jester can make perfect use of himself, if cunning enough and willing enough to employ a certain viciousness on occasion. It is true that in their sport I was merely the ball, but it is just as true that without the ball, the games could not be played. I’ll ask you a question now that you, even though you have already answered in your preamble. Who is most remembered today? Did Maestro Verdi name his opera for one of the court lackeys? The monarch himself? Or even my daughter? Or did he name it for a fool?

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Viva V.E.R.D.I.? The Distance Between Memory and Myth

A performance of an important composer’s final masterpiece, like Verdi’s Falstaff, enables us – maybe even requires us – to reflect on their life and legacy. For Verdi it was a rather long life and an eventful one. He witnessed much change, participated in some of it and left behind a body of work and a legend that seem too large for any one man. True, his personal operatic catalogue represents by itself an entire era of the art form’s history but a big part of his celebrity rests on his reputation as a champion of the Italian Risorgimento, the 19th Century movement for a unified nation. It is easy to see why.

Imagine this scene: It is March 9, 1842 at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan and the premiere performance of Verdi’s Nabucco is underway. In the third act there occurs a chorus of Hebrew slaves who sing “Va, pensiero, sull’ali dorate…Oh mia patria si bella e perduta” (“Fly, thought, on wings of gold…Oh, my country so beautiful and lost.”) in a moving musical moment of patriotic unity, shared suffering and longing for home. In a place like Milan, still living fitfully under Austrian rule, this thinly veiled but fully intentional anthem for the cause of Italian revival strikes an immediate and vociferous chord with the audience.

So fervent is the nationalistic sentiment in the theater this night that at the end of the opera the audience demands an encore performance of “Va, pensiero,” this in direct defiance of the official ban on such things (the Austrian authorities have previously declared encores verboten, believing them to be unacceptable overtures to public disorder). This act of collective civil disobedience marks an important moment in the history of the unification movement and an equally meaningful landmark in the life of the composer himself. It is the moment that Giuseppe Verdi becomes the voice of a revolution and inspires all Italy to sing. It is a moment worthy of great opera.

Now imagine this: This celebrated event of musical and political history, so reverently referenced by scholars and biographers never actually happened. Verdi was sympathetic to the ideals that had taken hold among his countrymen but contemporary research now shows he was not making any overt social stand with the slave chorus. The audience, if it did insist on an encore that evening, very likely heard something else entirely and there is no indication now that “Va, pensiero” made near the impression on them that we once thought. To be certain, the same modern study also shows that the Nabucco chorus would indeed become the unofficial anthem of the Risorgimento, but only years later after unification, more an acknowledgment than a harbinger. By this later date, however, the tale of the “Va pensiero” encore and its spontaneous adoption as “the music of the people” was so ingrained that even Verdi himself believed he had composed it with special purpose.

The Risorgimento (resurgence or a “rising again”) sought to unify the disparate City-States of the Italian peninsula under one flag and one government and was inspired in part by the French Revolution and the nationalist idealism it spawned throughout Europe. The movement also hoped for a renewal of the great Italian society and its people, believing that freedom from foreign influence would reawaken their fragmented national personality. It would be a lengthy process, lasting from 1815 until the creation of the Italian Kingdom in 1861.

Among the history that would thereafter be written by the victors was the aforementioned Verdi myth and, by extension, the notion that many of his operas in the 1840s and 1850s (I Lombardi, Ernani, Attila, etc.) were subtly political and encoded with support for the revolution. When viewed with a distant post-Risorgimento perspective, there certainly seem to be moments in his work during that period that reflect the mood of the day, but little evidence exists to support the idea that Verdi was doing anything other than setting compelling scenes to wonderful music as he always did and always would. In almost every case, he was composing, not sermonizing. The one notable exception was La battaglia di Legnano, an 1849 opera with obvious (and intentional) patriotic overtones.

It would be wrong to assume that Verdi was lukewarm on subjects of Italian unity and sovereignty. As evidenced by La battaglia, he was a true believer and expressed so clearly in a letter to his friend Piave during the height of the activities in 1848. “The hour of liberation has come, believe it” he wrote. “It is the people that wish it and when the people want it, no absolute power can put up a resistance!” This very real expression of support for the revolution probably helped newly unified Italians later “read back” (as biographer John Rosselli puts it) into the composer’s past intentions. This made it easy to imagine him as the artistic standard-bearer of the Risorgimento throughout the long struggle, that he had been in lock-step with them all along. Earned or not, his name meant revolution and towards the end of the Austrian rule in 1859, another legend has it that opera fans began to shout Viva V.E.R.D.I. during their applause as a secret call for Viva Vittorio Emanuele Re DItalia (“Long live Vittorio Emanuele, king of Italy”).

In the end, it matters little whether or not Giuseppe Verdi was a willing and active contributor from the very beginning to the events that surrounded him. It might actually be sufficient that when his compatriots needed a symbol strong enough to validate their memories, his music proved not only fitting but possibly even a bit prophetic, a perfect soundtrack to their decades of resistance. Who can say that his muse was not somehow bound up in the spirit of his time and that the message his fellow Italians later believed they had received wasn’t actually in there somewhere front the start? Can history not be both technically incorrect and somehow exactly right?

It might be best to focus last on Verdi’s greatest non-musical gift to his country, one about which there is no doubt at all. Just three years after the completion of his last opera, Falstaff, the aging composer founded his Casa di Riposo per Musicisti, a rest home for retired musicians that still operates today. It is in Milan, of course, sustained by royalties from his operas and the master himself is buried there. A crowd of over 900 citizens attended the funeral ceremony and under Maestro Toscanini they joined voices for their national hero Verdi, a man whose role in their liberation might well have been little more (and not one bit less) than the reflected glory of his prolific greatness as a composer. What did they sing?

“Va, pensiero…”

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My Stepmother the Cannibal

My Stepmother the Cannibal
By Jeff Counts

Fairy tales, despite our modern assumptions about their intended audience, are decidedly adult creations. Children star in them and children are supposed to learn from them but it is we, the “grown-ups,” who have always designed them and chosen their themes. Often terrifying and always intricately layered, these universal studies of good and evil now lie at the core of human culture and history. We use them to instruct our young and stimulate their budding imaginations but the secret message embedded in many of these narratives is that they, the children, might someday have to learn to fend for themselves against us.

Fear has always coexisted comfortably with wonder in our fairy tales and in “Hansel and Gretel,” the Grimm brothers provide comment on the tradition’s darkest and most elemental subjects – betrayal, abandonment, predatory parenthood and the meta-theme of intense hunger. This 1812 story belongs to an archetypal grouping known as Type 327A on the Aarne-Thompson classification system for folktales (yes, there really is such a thing) which pits innocents against a witch in various dangerous circumstances. It shares this grouping with the French traditional tale “The Lost Children” and many others, including “Molly Whuppie,” “Pippety Pew,” “Baba Yaga” and “The Rose Tree.”  “Hansel” also bears resemblance to earlier stories from other groupings, namely Charles Perrault’s 1697 “Hop O’ My Thumb” (Type  327B), Madame d’Aulnoy’s 1721 “Finette Cendron” (Type 510A). Clearly, the brothers had much to drawn upon when crafting their tale.

In each of these stories, young people are deliberately placed in harm’s way by the adults who are supposed to protect them. The preferred method of abuse employed by these parents in almost every case is that of abandonment. Apparently, vast and impenetrable woodlands were readily available to the peasant families of pre-modern times and these frightening wastes served nicely when burdensome offspring needed relocating. Hunger is always the cause and the justification. Little Thumbling’s father, mind made up to leave his kids to the will of the wild rather than face not being able to feed them, nobly proclaims that he “refuses to watch them die of starvation before his very eyes.” Molly Whuppie’s folks do the same. So do young Finette Cendron’s.  To be sure, young Hansel and his sister Gretel were in very good literary company when their dear old dad, a touch reluctantly to his credit, allowed his wife to lead them away.

It is important to note that the “wife” in the “Hansel and Gretel” we know today is not the children’s biological mother. This differs from the manuscript version of the tale, in which the Grimms had written her as their actual mother and made both parents equally complicit in their banishment. As revisions mounted though, the maternal character morphed into the sole aggressor with the father becoming a more hen-pecked and unenthusiastic participant in the crime. In the first official edition he does stand up to her (still the kids’ natural mother at this point) by telling her “No, wife. That I can never do” but she eventually wears him down and off go the children just the same. Throughout the revision process the maternal character’s evil nature is never in doubt and by the time the fifth edition is produced (1843) she has ceased to be “the mother” and has become simply “the wife.” With this critical change of biological perspective she takes on the most sinister of all the classic fairy tale roles – the wicked stepmother.

It is possible that the Grimm brothers wanted to soften the impact of the parental betrayal by removing the blood connection between the woman and the children but, in doing so, they created a family environment with a much greater potential for violence. Consider the actions of the stepmother in Joseph Jacobs’ “The Rose-Tree” who used an axe to “part the hair” of her husband’s daughter (from his first marriage) and then fed her to him. Grisly stuff but hardly rare in the fairy tale world. Stepmothers, and a few actual mothers too, routinely murder and consume their young in the pages of these stories and though they are usually repaid with appropriate justice in the end (like a millstone on the head for the aforementioned axe-wielder), the darkness of the original acts often shade the entire narrative.

What then are the true motives of the stepmother in “Hansel and Gretel?” If, like many modern scholars believe, she is one and the same with the witch the children later meet in the woods, than her intentions are clearly of a similar cannibalistic nature. And why not? It is, after all, hunger that drove her to cast them out in the first place, hunger that she uses to lure them into her alter ego’s lair and hunger still that requires her to devour them literally if she gets the opportunity. The entire tale seems saturated by the idea that the lack of nourishment, both real and figurative, provokes the worst in us.

That our mini-heroes will outsmart and defeat their witch/stepmother nemesis is never in question since this kind of story follows a fairly well-defined path. Resourcefulness and a certain calm under pressure are obvious in the siblings from the start of the tale, first in Hansel and then most critically in Gretel when it matters most. They are thrust into a terrifyingly confusing world in which the maternal comforts they rely on have become suddenly hostile. To be suddenly unwanted by an adult they should be able to trust and then just as unexpectedly wanted again by one they clearly shouldn’t forces Hansel and Gretel to mature in an instant.

Perhaps this is the greatest of all the possible morals the Grimm brothers hoped to impart – that children, even when faced with the most unspeakable adult selfishness, can be brave and enduring little creatures. Hansel and Gretel’s ending at least, once their pockets are filled with the dead witch’s jewels to give to their dutifully repentant father, is a happy one.

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The End of the Bohemian Century

The End of the Bohemian Century
By Jeff Counts

If you were in the Latin Quarter of Paris during the 1930s and lifted your eyes to just above street level, so the cars and electricity faded from sight, you could have imagined that the city’s storied left bank had not changed at all since Henri Murger spent his starving artist days there in the 1840s. To be sure, Murger himself would have had little trouble locating his old attic lodgings and might have been delighted to find that, even after 90 years, his key still worked. That’s Paris. She simply endures, with all of her customary comfort and indifference.

Henri Murger’s Scènes de la vie de Bohème was published in 1851 and is a singularly delightful still life depicting friendship, art and hunger among kindred souls during the 1840s. In the introduction to the 1930 Elizabeth Ward Hugus English translation, D. B. Wyndham Lewis referred to Murger’s Paris as “a pleasant, intimate [place] to be young and poor in.” It was a time for many left bank creative folk when ideas flowed but money did not. The real-life Bohemians who inspired the literary characters in Scènes likely spent much of their time sitting at cafes, discussing, theorizing and laughing. They also would have watched, with grudging interest, the ebb and flow of the Parisian bourgeois elite. These comically materialistic dandies and their lives of unsubtle privilege served as both foil and carrot for the struggling poets and painters.

Murger called it a “charming, yet terrible life.” His more famous contemporary, the poet Baudelaire, straddled the bourgeois/Bohemian divide with great reluctance but praised the life of the famished but fertile artist as “the cult of multiplied sensation.” When Wyndham Lewis wrote his introduction from Paris almost a century later, he was aware of some skepticism there about the accuracy of Murger’s account, a feeling Wyndham Lewis himself did not share. He referred to the doubters, in a manner befitting an accomplished English newspaper columnist and biographer, as “arid imbeciles” but sagely reminded Murger’s readers that Bohemia was also “a state of mind” rather than simply “an area situated between the Fifth and Sixth Arrondissements.”

Paris in her interwar years, though as steady and timeless as ever, was a city in social transition. The decade of the 1930s was to be partially defined by not one exodus but two. In 1930, most of the numerous American ex-patriots were departing with great haste, eager to return home and confront the devastations of the stock market crash. By 1939, with conflict and occupation on the horizon, Paris was emptying of almost all inhabitants. The years in between give us Parisian Bohemia in its winter age. If Murger’s antique time was defined by youth – by its joyful suffering, discovery and secret envy of the nobler classes – the years leading up to World War II showed the phenomenon in its full maturity. If the 1840s were the dreaming time, then the 1930s were the awakened time.

The Paris experiences of another Henry, an American author who chose 1930 to arrive rather than depart, provide the best portrait of what the Latin Quarter had become. Henry Miller came to France in March of that year to write the novel that would define his career but, in a way, he had already missed the true apogee of left bank creativity. His was a slightly quieter, less pretentious Bohemia than the one enjoyed by his Jazz Age countrymen in the 1920s – a time when the shoulders of Pablo Picasso, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemingway could be brushed at the cafes and salons. Many of the luminaries remained in 1930 but the ranks of wealthy, faux-Bohemian onlookers had thinned considerably. Still, Miller found Paris to be the ideal environment for his controversial tastes and writing and spent much time, often by necessity, exploring the city’s darker, more explicit side. His was not an innocent, coquettish Bohemia, but rather an urgent, modern and mysterious one – perfect for his purposes. He might have thought he was an artist before but now, but according to his own excited words, “I no longer think about it, I am.”

Some interesting parallels exist between Murger’s stories and Miller’s actual life. Murger’s painter character, Marcel, toils in his Latin Quarter apartment to complete his masterpiece. So does Henry Miller at first. Marcel’s work is regularly rejected. Miller’s will be too, for a time, in his home country. Both men knew the oddly satisfying juxtaposition of poverty and happiness. Both felt the sting of stormy love, Marcel with his Musette and Miller his Anaïs Nin, though the roles were reversed in the latter case somewhat. And both eventually, and maybe sadly, have to grow out of all of it. Miller, in fact, was angry with Paris when he left, stating that he would never return to “that city of sewers.” In the last year of the decade, the excitement he felt for the city that was muse to his greatest work waned quickly. No wonder really, with the Eastern skies darkening as they were.

The entire world changed in 1939, not just Paris, and to be sure the City of Light suffered less than many. But the effects of the coming war were obvious to those few artists who stuck it out as long as they could – among them were Miller, James Joyce, Josephine Baker and Vladimir Nabokov. Businesses closed, hoarding and price gouging took hold. The blackout, once seen as a suggestion and called a “blueout” by locals based on how many ignored it, now became compulsory. Most of the men of fighting age were gone. Hard liquor was no longer sold in restaurants. Candles became a rare commodity and were available only one at a time.

If Henri Murger did somehow appear in 1939 and managed to find his old garret, it’s comforting to imagine that he might have found it familiarly lit by the day’s only candle. Paris, just like he left it, even at the end.

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