Vantage Music & Tra Nguyen | March 2019 | Hong Kong
In March, Vantage Music invited Russian composer Elena Langer for breakfast at the Grand Hyatt in Wanchai, Hong Kong. The interview was joined by Vietnam-born British pianist Tra Nguyen. We got to know more about Elena as a composer and Beauty and Sadness, the chamber opera that would be premiered in April at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts.
Composition as an Escape from Piano Practice
Elena Langer, Russian-born British composer of orchestral, opera, chamber and choral music, began her musical journey with learning to play the piano. Her mother was a Solfège1 teacher who also guided Elena and took her to music school at a young age. Around the age of 12, Elena thought that she did not feel like doing music anymore and wanted to stop going to music school. However, Elena’s mother managed to convince her to keep going for a few more months to complete the remaining school terms. During these few months, something saved Elena from turning away from music altogether, and that was composing.
Elena found composing more interesting than piano practice. She recalled her first encounter with composition which began with improvising. She attended a class on creative harmony where students had to compose using a combination of words and music. With the other children in the class, she had to write poems and improvise and that was when she wrote her first opera.
Elena studied musicology and piano at the Gnessin State Musical College in Moscow, with composition as a minor. While she was not too fond of practising the piano and was more captivated by improvisation and composing, she managed well her piano studies at the music college. “I was quite good at piano though not as good as Rachmaninov or Scriabin,” she told us. In fact, many of her teachers saw great potential in her in becoming a concert pianist, if only she would spend more time practising the piano. Nevertheless, in the final year at the College, upon her composition teacher’s recommendation, she applied for Moscow Conservatory to study composition. The application was successful. At the Conservatory, Elena also had an inspiring orchestration teacher who nurtured her fondness for orchestration reflected in her subsequent works2.
From Russia to London
Elena got married at a very young age. Her husband, born in Ukraine but emigrated to the USA as a child, was working in Russia in the 90s. At that time, Russia was in chaos following the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Elena’s husband was determined to leave the country when his boss’s boss was murdered. “He was simply scared,” said Elena. As soon as he found a job in London, Elena’s husband took the opportunity to relocate. However, Elena chose to stay because she was enjoying her studies at Moscow Conservatory. Two years later, upon her graduation, Elena left swiftly for London to rejoin her husband.
Elena recounted, “And when I arrived in London, I realised that I couldn’t speak any English at all. All of my degrees from Russia meant absolutely nothing. I was quite depressed for a year or so.” She had applied to several major music colleges in London, including the Guildhall School of Music & Drama and the Royal Academy of Music (RAM). Eventually, she was offered a scholarship to study at the Royal College of Music (RCM). “It was possible to get a scholarship as my portfolio was quite good,” said Elena. “Also, a friend of mine was studying there. After studying for a year, I gradually began to understand what was going on.”
Later on, feeling the urge to pursue more performance opportunities, Elena left RCM after obtaining her master degree to pursue a PhD at the RAM. In 2002, during her time at the RAM, a newspaper advertisement from the Almeida Theatre caught her attention – the theatre was hiring a composer-in-residence. She got the job and yet, the theatre had a specific focus on opera. “At the Conservatory, I was completely not interested in opera. I was just writing and listening to orchestral and chamber music – but not opera,” Elena explained. But from working as a composer-in-residence, Elena cultivated an interest towards opera. She even wrote her first small chamber operas there. She was glad to be involved in opera music because she was losing interest in just being in the niche world of contemporary music. In comparison, exposure to opera music opened up an entirely new horizon for her – opportunities to collaborate with a larger variety of artists including poets, writers, and music directors.
After working at the theatre for two years, Elena’s baby boy was born. By then, she also completed her PhD studies with an original composition together with a dissertation on fusing folk and contemporary music.
From 2008, her commission projects began to take off. Since then, Elena had a project in the USA where she worked with the American soprano Dawn Upshaw and her song cycle was performed at Carnegie Hall. She was also invited to the Tanglewood Festival in western Massachusetts where her first operatic work Ariadne was performed.
On London vs Moscow: Elena compared her composition studies at the Moscow Conservatory to those at the Royal Academy of Music in London. “At the Academy, students learn specific genres of composition such as film, media, and classical composition. In Russia, however, there is no such distinction: we were taught everything in general terms,” she said. We learned that musical training in Russia is very intense, and entrance exams to the Conservatory lasted up to five hours during which students have to write a piece with a theme given on the day of the exam. Elena studied Shostakovich’s compositional methods in preparation for the entrance exam as his passacaglias, for example, were good models.
Inspiration for Composition
During the interview, Elena offered us a glimpse of her sources of inspiration for composing.
There certainly are Baroque elements in Elena’s music – for instance, her song cycle, Landscape with Three People, for soprano, countertenor, oboe, strings, voices and harpsichord and Second Movement for oboe, violin and string orchestra. For this latter piece, Elena took only half a bar of Bach’s Double Concerto for violin and piano and developed the rest on her own. In fact, back in the days in Russia, she came across early music through recordings of European baroque performances. Bach, Handel and Purcell are amongst her favourite Baroque composers. In particular, she enjoys going to the Handel Festival in Halle, Germany, and the London Handel Festival to listen to Handel’s operas.
Elena begins her day by listening to music on Radio 3 (a London radio channel) after sending her son to school. She likes the baroque music that is broadcasted in the morning.
Having a story is very important for Elena when composing. To her, a lot of Mendelssohn-Schumann-Brahms music tradition and styles have been explored already. Therefore, stories certainly facilitate the writing process to arrive at something original and authentic. She admires the avant-garde music of Stockhausen and Schoenberg. “Their music tells stories and isn’t just trying to recreate the style for the sake of it,” she explained. She illustrated that with the example of Schoenberg’s String Quartet No. 2, “You can feel that the quartet starts very nicely. But the harmony gradually becomes detached and more chromatic as it progresses.” In fact, Schoenberg wrote this piece after he found out that his wife had an affair with the family’s friend painter, Richard Gerstl. “It’s very genuine. There’s a personal reason behind and I like that – it’s very effective,” she said. She was not interested in purely imitating the avant-garde style without a reason behind.
Likewise, Elena likes to write operas with stories. In this way, she only has to direct her musical language towards expressing the narrative3. Furthermore, whereas some composers are very consistent in their language and are very strict about it, Elena prefers to let each project guide her language.
Paintings can also be the sources of inspiration for Elena when composing. RedMare4 is a short commission piece which Elena had written for the London Piano Festival to commemorate the centennial of the 1917 Russian Revolution. Elena got her inspiration for the piece by studying the paintings around that time – an era when new artistic trends were flourishing, breaking away from the Russian traditions5. In particular, she was drawn to Russian painter and writer Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin’s Fantasy. “During its world première in 2017, the painting was projected on a screen above the two pianists who were playing the piece. Visually, it was striking: the two pianists playing fast notes and rhythms while the red horse is charging forward with the rider looking backward. I think it’s a very Russian thing,” said Elena.
Being a native Russian, Elena also makes use of traditional Russian folk music and in particular, the folk singing styles. “When my son was small, I wrote a lullaby for five female folk voices and a piano with string instruments. I always wanted to combine folk and non-folk music,” she explained.
Being comedic about Death
Elena revealed that she has an upcoming opera at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Music Theatre for the 2021/22 season. It will be based on a play by Nikolai Erdman called The Suicide6.
Banned during the Stalinist era, the story tells of an unemployed young man, Semyon Podsekalnikov, who was rumoured to be yearning for committing suicide. People then betted on and took advantage of this “anticipated” suicide. As the story evolved, Semyon was almost convinced that perhaps he should really kill himself to end his miserable life. Towards the end, at the funeral party where everyone was expecting the death of the young man, Semyon realised that life was good, and he was not ready to die yet.
Elena Langer’s colourful, dramatic, appealing and often humorous music has become increasingly familiar to audiences through her pieces, operatic, vocal and orchestral. Her 2016 hit for Welsh National Opera, Figaro Gets a Divorce, was described by Rupert Christiansen in the Daily Telegraph as “that rare thing: a modern opera that exerts an immediate emotional impact”. Her WNO follow-up, the 2018 vaudeville Rhondda Rips It Up! was wildly popular with audiences across the UK; The Times calling it “bursting with irreverent joy”. Her new chamber opera Beauty and Sadness written for HK was described by Peter Gordon in The Asian Review of Books as “modern opera for those who think they don’t like modern opera”.
– Robert Thicknesse
Such an idea for an opera came after her experience battling with cancer7. “I fell ill for a couple of years because of cancer. It was hard to believe and to realise that life can stop at any point – but it inspired an entire new feeling for me. Now, I wanted to write a comedy about death. I contacted the theatre and they were interested in my idea,” she said. This opera will also mark her first time writing a libretto in Russian.
Beauty and Sadness, and Fascination with Japanese Culture
Beauty and Sadness is an opera commissioned by Carolyn Choa8, a Hong Kong-born director and choreographer. “Carolyn wanted to do an opera based on Kawabata’s 1964 novel of the same title,” Elena told us, “she asked me if I was interested. It turned out that I was quite fascinated by everything Japanese. I read haiku; I was into Japanese folk music: it was my teenage interest – so why not?” Elena was first exposed to the Japanese culture through poems and books which she read as a teenager. Compared to Russian culture, in Elena’s words, which is grand, bold and wild, Japanese’s is the complete opposite – delicate and precise.
The story for the opera would be told in English and Elena identified some haikus which matched the locations in the opera such as Kyoto or Lake Biwa as if it were a coincidence. “So I have a selection of haikus and I decided to set them in Japanese,” said Elena, “I asked my Japanese pianist friend to check and to read these haikus for me, and I listen to make sure all the intonation and accents are correct.” In the opera, two geishas dressed in traditional costume, sing and converse in Japanese. The opera would be just over an hour long – resembling that of a typical movie – that, according to Elena, is an optimal duration for a contemporary opera considering that the audience may not be familiar with it.
Beauty and Sadness would be conducted by Hungarian conductor, Gergely Madaras, with set and costume designed by Oscar-winning art director Tim Yip. Singers include Korean soprano, Pureum Jo and countertenor, Siman Chung. The interview came to a close with Elena recommending the audience to enjoy the opera from the Gallery of the Lyric Theatre in preference to the Stalls seats, as one would get a more holistic view from a higher vantage point.
Interviewed by Vantage Music & Tra Nguyen, written by Puntid Tantivangphaisal.
1 Solfège is a kind of aural and theory training used in music education.
2 Such as Beauty and Sadness.
3 Such as her current work, Beauty and Sadness, which was based on the novel “Utsukushisa to kanashimi to” by the Nobel Prize-winning Japanese novelist Yasunari Kawabata.
4 RedMare has been written for the festival’s Katya Apekisheva and Charles Owen to perform in their Two Piano Marathon concert during the four-day London Piano Festival on 8 October 2017.
5 For example, composer Stravinsky made breakthroughs with works like Firebird at the beginning of the 20th century in Russia.
6 The Suicide is a 1928 play by the Russian playwright Nikolai Erdman. Its performance was proscribed during the Stalinist era and it was only produced in Russia several years after the death of its writer. Today it is regarded as one of the finest plays to have come out of Communist Russia.
7 In fact, during the years that Elena was battling with cancer, she wrote one of her most successful operas, Figaro Gets a Divorce which was premiered in 2016.
8 For more details about Carolyn and Beauty and Sadness, please refer to the article by South China Morning Post published on 16 March 2019.