In their day, Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner would not have shared a birthday party. Their differences — in politics, philosophy and musical style — were far more divisive than their commonalities of sharing 1813 as a birth year and both being masters of operatic composition, as celebrated in the 19th century as they still are today.
So celebrated as to warrant birthday tributes worldwide, including one to be performed this weekend in Soldotna, as the Performing Arts Society’s first classical music concert of its 2013-14 season. Soprano Kate Egan, mezzo-soprano Nancy Caudill and pianist Juliana Osinchuk, all of Anchorage, will celebrate the 200th birthdays of Verdi and Wagner in a concert at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at Christ Lutheran Church in Soldotna.
“There’s been a lot of focus this year throughout the musical world because of their birthdays, and what’s very interesting is that both of these composers were giants in the 19th century, they were giants in the opera literature, they’re very different musically and also extremely different as people — totally, totally different characters. But I guess that’s what makes the world go around — variety,” said Osinchuk.
Through his operas, often skewering rulers’ abuses of power, Verdi was an important voice in the 19th century movement to unify the feuding regions of then-disparate Italy. His music was a soundtrack of revolution. As such he faced censorship by the powers that be, but also received such wide acclaim and respect that his career flourished. His operatic style was grand, producing spectacles for the eyes as well as ears. He wrote his rich, soaring melodies in the “bel canto” style — meaning “beautiful singing.”
Wagner, a German, has a rougher history, with a reputation for being an anti-Semite, womanizer and often in debt. He spoke disparagingly of the grand operatic style in which Verdi composed, although that does not mean his works were quiet or reserved. Though not as opulent as Verdi’s operas, Wagner’s works were quite ambitious, so much so that they aren’t as frequently and widely performed today — not because their mastery is any less recognized, but because of their sheer difficulty.
His style was “Gesamkuntswerk” — roughly translating to “all things coming together for one objective” — meaning that he controlled every aspect of his operas, from writing the words and the music to having a heavy hand in the staging, venue and other details usually left up to others.
Though both are known for elaborate operas, which do not easily condense down for chamber music performances, both did produce some repertoire that can be performed on a smaller scale. Osinchuk said she dug out some solo pieces for piano by Verdi and Wagner, and they have been practicing various art songs from each composer, with just a vocalist and piano accompaniment. Whereas Verdi and Wagner’s operas are epic stories with multiple roles set to elaborate orchestration, these compositions are simple poems set to music.
The art songs lack the pomp and spectacle of the operas but retain the audible stamp of their composers, offering an intimate perspective on Verdi and Wagner’s styles.
“The sound will be familiar to people who love Verdi and Wagner, because it is the composers who wrote them, but it will feature works people probably will not have heard thus far,” Osinchuk said.
Though not the performers’ birthdays, performing music a little off the beaten path is a bit of a gift to them.
“It’s new music, pretty much for all of us, so it’s a challenge. It’s fun to do things that are very familiar and that everybody does, and then there’s also the fun aspect of exploring and learning new things and presenting things which are not known,” Osinchuk said.
The pieces will likely be new to most listeners, too, and yet they might still sound somewhat familiar. “Wesendonck Lieder,” for instance, is a cycle of several art songs composed by Wagner, a few of which he later identified as being studies for what became one of his most famous operas, “Tristan und Isolde.”
From Verdi there’s “Solitaria Stanza” (“In a Solitary Room”), set to a poem by Jacopo Vitorelli about the passing of beauty. But the music shows Verdi’s lasting devotion to beautiful composition, with a lyrical, graceful melody.
This group of performers is new to the central peninsula, as well. They’ve performed with each other before in various iterations, but never all three for the Performing Arts Society.
Egan has performed frequently with the Anchorage Opera, Anchorage Festival of Music, Alaska Chamber Singers, Anchorage Concert Chorus and the Anchorage Symphony Orchestra, is a member of the vocal faculty at the University of Alaska Anchorage and a private instructor.
Osinchuk will give program notes live to the audience during the concert, to share more about the pieces.
“It’ll be a really fun program and so people should come and hear something that they will most likely enjoy, and learn something new,” she said.
Listeners could learn, for instance, about the two different styles of these very different composers, and perhaps learn which they like better. Or not. Osinchuk, for one, doesn’t pick favorites.
“I must say, as composers, I loved Verdi from the very beginning, but Wagner, since I have listened to a lot more of Wagner in recent years, I have become a great fan of his, as well. They’re very different. To say which one you like better is like saying you prefer oranges or apples. They are both equally wonderful and very different,” she said.
“Happy Birthday Verdi and Wagner” is the first concert of the Performing Arts Society’s 2013-14 season. Following will be Philadelphia Brass on Jan. 11, Sitka Summer Music Festival Musicians Feb. 17 and Valerie Hartzeli, classical guitarist, on March 7. Tickets for Performing Arts Society concerts are $20 for general admission and $10 for students, available in advance at Northcountry Fair, River City Books, Already Read Books and at the door.
For more information on the Performing Arts Society, visit www.performingartssociety.org.
For information on Egan, visit www.anchorageopera.org/residentartists.html.
For information on Caudill, visit www.nancycaudill.com.
For information on Osinchuk, visit www.jlodmusic.com.