A Woman of Strings: Violinist Hanna Lachert (Part I)

We are incredibly lucky to have an interview with renowned violinist, Hanna Lachert! Originally from Poland, she has lived in the US for over four decades, and has played with the New York Philharmonic in addition to having a successful chamber and solo career. Hanna not only comes from a musical family, but also has a musical family of her own. While the true test of an artist is ultimately beyond gender, I asked Hanna to comment on her own experiences in being a woman in classical music. The following is from a recorded interview by Hanna, posted in two parts.

Violin culture in Poland is very much alive, and doing well. The music scene is vibrant, as is reflected in many concerts, festivals, and international and local competitions, etc. There are many orchestras, chamber music ensembles, etc. Polish violinists are concertmasters of orchestras around the world!

The roots of Polish violin music go back to the medieval ages, when it was part of courtly life. Hanna continued that tradition as a member of an ensemble in the 1960s in Warsaw called “Con Moto Ma Cantabile” that was mostly strings and harpsichord. They played Polish music of the 16th and 17th centuries (plus concertos by Vivaldi). Western audiences have probably never heard of Mielczewski (1600-65), Szarzynski (also 17th century) and others. There was also Karol Lipiński (1790-1861), a contemporary of Paganini. He left a large body of work for violin, including concerti, symphonies, caprices, and other works. Perhaps the ultimate compliment came from Paganini, who himself is considered by many to be the greatest virtuoso violinist who ever lived. While Paganini said he did not know who the greatest violinist was, the second would certainly be Lipiński!

Then of course there was Henryk Wieniawski (1835 – 1880), a major violin virtuoso and composer for whom the Poznań International Violin competition is named. Wieniawski was employed by the czar in St. Petersburg; there, he started what we know of today as the Russian school, which was later developed by Auer. One of his trips took him to America for 8 months, where he played 215 concerts with pianist Anton Rubinstein!

The next major figure that Hanna cites is Karol Szymanowski (1882 – 1937). His input into the literature of the violin is enormous. With the help of his violinist friend Paul Kochański, a new sound was created in compositions like Myths, two violin concerti, symphonies, and others. Hanna finds his music mesmerizing! Szymanowski’s music is still played globally, thus bringing Poland’s contributions to a wider audience. In addition to violin music, there is also symphonic music from Poland that Hanna finds significant. Karłowicz (1876 – 1909), who died tragically in an avalanche, wrote symphonic poems in addition to a noted violin concerto.

In the 20th century, Bronisław Huberman (1882-1947), a virtuoso violinist, created the Israel Philharmonic. Of course there were violinists Henryk Szeryng (1918-88) and Ida Haendel. Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-69), a woman composer, left a large legacy of music for the violin, such as sonatas, concerti, quartets, etcetera, that are widely performed in Poland and abroad. A current composer of note is Penderecki, who has written several concerti for famed violinists Isaac Stern, Anne-Sophie Mutter, as well as symphonies and chamber music.

But what about our interviewee herself? What was her journey as a violinist?

Not surprisingly, Hanna comes from a musical family. Her mother was a pianist, and her brother is a pianist and composer. When asked about the status of women in classical music in Poland, she provided an answer that some may find surprising. When she came to the US in her early 20’s and with a Master’s, she found a discrepancy between the number of men and women in music, as there was total gender equality in Poland! She says she has done, and still does well, as a female violinist.

But before coming to America, Hanna went from Warsaw to Hanover, Germany to study with Andre Gertler. Then came a twist of fate that changed her life: a Polish expatriate violinist who was visiting from the United States offered her a graduate assistantship to study at the University of Connecticut. Hanna thought it was terrific, but there were the nuts and bolts questions of a visa, passport, etcetera. She stayed in Europe, going to Belgium for another degree, and then finally came to New York and on to Connecticut. The musical culture she found in New York completely floored her! The amount of concerts, choices, was (and is) in her view unparalleled. She has traveled to the great capitals of the world and is very knowledgeable about classical music all over; while she finds the quality in those cities excellent, she says nothing compares to New York. One of the first things Hanna observed in New York was that it was possible to find absolutely everything! Be it ancient or new, from Africa or Antarctica, everything was available. And that was also the case with music. In general, she says all the performing arts flourish in New York. She also says that performances in concert series given at universities around the country are also amazing – something America can be proud of!

But this is not enough. What is problematic is the lack of basic musical and arts education in our elementary schools. Hanna wisely mentions that science has been proving the effect of music on our developing brains, something that is very effective in our lives. Hanna adds that it is even more important now, as children and teenagers are spending more and more time in front of a screen, that they balance this by immersing themselves in the world of the arts, especially in music–whatever instrument they choose.

(Part II will follow; meanwhile, visit http://www.hannalachert.com)

TWOL is back for its 3rd Anniversary!

Dear readers,
Wow, three years and going strong!  I can’t believe it!  Summer has been an incredibly busy and fruitful time for me as a writer. I was fortunate to participate in a workshop with writer Antonya Nelson (who is a very good teacher). In July I participated in a workshop with her husband Robert Boswell at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference (talk about a writing power couple! He knows everything!). In August, I had the extraordinary privilege of going to the Breadloaf Writers’ Conference in Vermont, where I was in a workshop with Lan Samantha Chang (she is remarkably down-to-earth for being so talented!) So posts came to a standstill for a while, but stay tuned for some exciting things here, including a unique interview. Thanks for reading and your support!
Warmest wishes,

Since 1776: Britain and/vs. the United States

With Independence Day soon approaching on July 4, I thought it would be interesting to explore the similarities and differences between British and American culture. As a devoted Anglophile who has studied abroad in England, visited the London area many times, and has family and friends there, I am always fascinated by America’s “homeland” and the culture there. There are a few things that absolutely make me scratch my head in wonder (the English fry up–baked beans at breakfast??), and other things I admire or can relate to. In no particular order, here are some of the similarities and differences I have noticed:

-England’s English is more ornate, flowery, and wordy than American English. Our use of language here is very direct, efficient, and about not wasting anybody’s time. One can see this in the language of our obsessive, dumbed-down text culture. While this efficiency is often very admirable and shows a certain confidence in expressing one’s ideas with an economy of words, at the same time, we can lack the eloquence, visible erudition, and even clever wordplay (there is nothing like British sarcasm, nothing!) that we find in the same language used across the pond. The language has had a longer time to develop in its homeland, and there are much deeper roots and history entwined with British English. American English’s strength is its innovation, which has surprisingly led the Oxford English Dictionary to include slangy words that might not have been considered decades earlier.

-Britons and Americans are both rather good-humored people. But there is more public bawdiness allowed on TV, in the media, etc. A streak of Puritanism still can run through American culture despite the fact that one can very easily find extremely racy, dirty, and vulgar American humor in the media. But the bawdy humor runs back centuries–think of Shakespeare, and the actors performing the play in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Juliet’s nurse teasing about the pleasures of the nuptial bed in Romeo and Juliet.

-Both the United States and Great Britain are large, Anglo-Saxon-based multicultural societies. While there is the dominance of culture, there is also a huge inclusion and tolerance of diversity, minorities, and various ethnic groups. Part of this is due to the countries’ history of colonization and/or slavery. While someone who is Jamaican British for 2 generations would be considered British, someone who is Moroccan in France for two generations would still be considered Moroccan. Britain is very unique in Europe, and cannot be rightly considered Continental in her values, despite EU membership. Britain has proudly retained the pound sterling as her currency, and with the current economic crises in the EU, that was a wise decision.

-I once read a quote (I believe it was by JB Priestley) that England is “reasonable, not rational.” This has its pros and cons. As above, England is less puritanical overall, can accept more behaviors with a reasonable point of view. The long traditions of the English imagination, dandyism, architecture, royal culture, even its religion (Catholicism which then morphed into the Church of England) all illustrate a certain sense of grace and luxuriousness beyond the practicality of American day-to-day life. However, day-to-day life is run with much more smoothness and efficiency in the United States. Ours is not a bureaucratic country, and many institutional processes happen much more quickly here. Each visit to London makes me realize how disorganized the country can be—train stations are a mess, nobody knows which bus goes where, and one must either freeze or burn one’s hands when deciding between the cold or hot taps on the sink.

-Both the US and UK rely heavily on processed, prepackaged foods. Perhaps it is a leftover habit from the war, but supermarkets offer any variety of edible or prepare a bowl in a box, tin/can, or bag. Both the US and UK have gone through a foodie revolution, so to speak, in the past couple of decades, and the number of excellent restaurants has exponentially increased in both countries (primarily in urban areas). Britain does have the advantage of being a smaller country in that the distance from which locally grown foods are shipped is much smaller, although a number of items are imported from southern Europe and northern Africa. But this general reliance on processed foods is still very prevalent in both countries, and perhaps it is no surprise that both the US and UK have high rates of obesity (with the former having the highest rates in the world).

-Naturally, the reason for the colonies’ split from England was the dislike of monarchy and the love of freedom. But what does it mean to have a monarchy and how does this filter out into society? The primary factor that comes to mind is class. The UK is still very class-oriented, and though the upper class is a very small percentage, their landholding and wealth can be quite staggering. With any nobility-holding society comes a great tradition of the arts, high arts. In the United States, we are still developing an arts culture, and it tends to be based more on wealth and individualism rather than something historical. A sense of monarchy also lends itself to a more complacent society, in my opinion. People are more willing to be deferential in the UK in a way that we do not see here in the United States. Social harmony and well being are a higher priority than the extreme individualism and freedom we see in the US. Everything seems more calm, accepting, and unquestioned in the United Kingdom. In the United States, people are much less willing to accept what is put in the baby’s bottle, so to speak, without thinking it through and seeing if it meets the individual’s needs.

-Class differences and social structure are very different between the US and UK. Americans might falsely present an image of our country being a classless society, while the UK still retains the reputation of being run by the upper class and royals, while the rest of the country lives in detached houses. The US does indeed have different social classes, but the markers are often less obvious. Speech, for one, is relatively homogenized compared to Britain. How one speaks does not clearly indicate one’s social position. Also, people cross class barriers much more frequently here. For example, the child of multimillionaires may be working as a waitress in the summer during high school, or a plumber may be on a luxury cruise with passengers who are wealthy professionals. However, it is rare that we discuss class in the United States or very distinctly portray working-class people in our media. One of the rare exceptions was the groundbreaking TV sitcom “Roseanne” which was unabashedly working class. The idea in America is that everyone works, and everyone is self-made, whether or not this is entirely true. We would never have, financially or culturally, a social designation such as
“long term unemployed” as does the UK (as per the Office of National Statistics)!

The comparisons are endless, but the discussion must end here for now. Happy July 4 to all my American readers, and hopefully the Britons aren’t still bitter over 1776…

La Bohème: The Opera about “Nothing”

A friend complained that she profoundly disliked the opera La Bohème. Her criticism of Puccini’s hugely popular masterpiece is that the opera drags on, that it takes too long for Mimi to die, and that all of the operas she dislikes happen to be written by Puccini. These might sound like invalid criticisms, comments made by hurried, uncultured Americans who always want to “get somewhere” or something to happen. Lest one assume she is a complete cultural ignoramus, my friend is actually very knowledgeable about opera and the fine arts, and holds memberships to New York art museums though she lives in the Midwest. I was offended in jest, as I am currently learning the role of Musetta, which is as delightful as it is challenging, and will later learn the role of Mimi.

One could argue that we all have an artist we dislike in a particular genre. I doubt I will ever sit through an entire opera by Wagner, despite being an opera singer. But Wagner’s music is absolutely stunning in small doses. I find the overtures to Rienzi and Tannhäuser (one of my marooned-on-a-desert-island picks) and the Prelude to Act I of Lohengrin (tear-inducing when heard live by the Mariinsky Orchestra) to be heartbreakingly gorgeous. I have also joked that I refuse to see Puccini’s Turandot on moral grounds, that the opera is a sort of play-the-black-keys-on-the piano-and-it’s “Chinese” kind of Orientalism at its worst. But I do think it worthwhile to examine La Bohème in detail, to see if there is validity in my friend’s criticism of the opera.

La Bohème, essentially, is “an opera about nothing,” to borrow the analogy from the description of the hugely popular television show “Seinfeld.” The show focused on minutiae, where each episode was not about something grand or dramatic, but something small and silly, where the pleasure in watching came simply from being in the moment and enjoying the pleasure of watching, from funny lines or absurd situations or characters’ quirks. There is something to be said about this characteristic in all genres of artwork, where the realization of the work of art and its details, the way it reproduces reality or conjures the particular emotional feeling of the moment, is what makes it noteworthy. Impressionist paintings, for example, evoke a mood, as do 19th-century symphonic tone poems or a film like the stunning “Wings of Desire” (“Der Himmel Über Berlin”) by Wim Wenders, which is poetry on screen.

The main plotline to La Bohème is relatively simple—-a young dying woman, Mimì, falls in love with poor poet Rodolfo, who lives with his painter friend Marcello, and they are friends with other starving artists. Their relationship goes through ups and downs, as does the painter’s relationship with the coquettish Musetta. In the end, Mimì dies. All relatively straightforward, and not so much to stretch out into 4 acts. On this point, I would agree: La Bohème is too long; Act III could be condensed into Act IV. The opera could work in two acts, actually. The first could accelerate the meeting of Mimì and Rodolfo, then involve a set change into the café. At this peak of happiness, we could then see it all go downhill: Mimì seeks Marcello out to tell him of her unhappiness with Rodolfo, and then, after a set change, she dies. But even in condensing the opera into two acts, we are still ignoring a structural problem: too much of the action of here happens offstage. In this, the criticism that nothing happens in La Bohème may be well justified.

In Act I, the plot is set into action. We see Rodolfo writing and Marcello painting. We see their struggles as artists, we feel their suffering due to the lack of heat and food. And then most importantly, we see Mimì introduced onto the scene. We see her faint, we get to know her sickness. And then we see her falling in love with Rodolfo, and vice versa. In other words, Act I is active, because we are engaged with the events shown onstage.

Act II is less active, but we can forgive it because of one key reason—Musetta. She is one of opera’s greatest female characters, a free-spirited, vain, flirtatious, independent woman who will do as she pleases. She is one of the rare characters who does not suffer a tragic end, nor is she punished for enjoying her sexuality. Though we do not get much of the backstory of Marcello and Musetta’s, we get enough: theirs is an eternally on-off relationship that is generally taken lightly, in contrast to the deep, intimate, emotionally tortured relationship of Rodolfo and Mimì. We enjoy Musetta’s attention-seeking antics she uses to seduce Marcello, and her showcase aria, “Quando m’en vo” is arguably one of the most beautiful arias in all of opera. Act II is all about pleasure, pleasure in romance, pleasure in eating, pleasure in being surrounded by townsfolk. Though not super active, there is still visible action that drives the plot forward. Musetta is reunited with Marcello, and Rodolfo and Mimì are deeply in love forever.

Act III is where the opera becomes more passive. This fact is probably the most passive of all the 4 acts. Mimì has gone to seek Rodolfo at a tavern during winter. She reveals to Marcello what she has suffered from Rodolfo’s jealousy. Then, Rodolfo tells Marcello that he can’t bear it that Mimì is dying. The couple meets, and agrees to stay together until spring. While this is all fine and well, it is only because the music is so beautiful that the audience remains engaged. So much of the action has happened offstage–we have not gotten to see the downfall of their relationship, the arguments, the jealousies, Mimì’s slow decline. The contrast of a fight between Marcello and Musetta serves for comic relief: if Act II was a love moment, Act III is a hate moment in the roller coaster of their relationship. These two characters are not critical to the plot in the way Rodolfo and Mimì are. Time is stretched out in this act; it moves even more slowly than real-time.

Act IV is also rather passive until Mimì arrives on the scene. We have found out that she took up with a viscount after leaving Rodolfo, but has dragged herself, with the help of Musetta, to Rodolfo’s apartment to die. Again, too much has happened offstage that we want to know about–how did they survive the parting? What was Mimi’s relationship with this viscount? Did Rodolfo see any other women in the meantime? How has Mimì’s arrived at death’s door? Has she tried to save her life? Meanwhile, Musetta’s character arc shows her as less selfish than she was before. She has gone with Marcello to sell her earrings to buy Mimi a muff, and makes a sincere prayer to the Virgin Mary to save Mimi, an angel, considering herself unworthy of pardon. Her death scene is indeed touching, the group of friends surrounding her with their warmth and love. But again, one could argue that this act is stretched out longer than necessary, without much going on.

In sum, then, the problem with La Bohème is pacing and the portrayal of time. One must remember that the opera is based on a book, Scènes de la vie de bohème (scenes from a bohemian life), and therein lies the problem: the libretto is based on scenes. Any time a group of stories is woven together into a film or a longer work, such as an opera (and opera might be considered the equivalent of a novel), there is the danger of the longer work being fragmented. Longer works need structure and plot development. These two literary devices are the backbone or skeleton for a film or opera. Two people, Giacosa and Illica, also wrote the libretto and this may also be another source of the problem. Many films that seem unclear, messy, or fragmented have multiple writers, and it is rare when they can find unity in their vision.

This said, I still find La Bohème to be one of the most beautiful and engaging operas ever written. Puccini’s music carries the story even when it is weak, the language of the libretto is simply gorgeous and poetic, and the characters are as relevant today as they were over 100 years ago. They are rounded and complex, real and flawed. Proof of La Bohème’s popularity and relevance can be seen in Jonathan Larson’s 1996 musical, Rent. I personally happen to find the musical a somewhat vulgar copy of the opera, though I am always a fan of any modern work that draws on classics, such as the brilliant films that comprised 2005’s “ShakespeaRe-told”. There is no question that La Bohème will continue to be a classic for decades if not centuries to come.

Poem “We to the World” by Lorna Goodison

Dear readers,
Your patience in waiting for a new post has paid off–The Women of Letters is unbelievably proud and grateful to present a new poem by Professor Lorna Goodison of the University of Michigan, a distinguished poet from Jamaica who is renowned the world over!  I hope you will be encouraged to read more of her work, for her poetry is very accessible. Professor Goodison is a true woman of letters, and her poem for TWOL is of an especially relevant subject: the Boko Haram kidnapping of schoolgirls, young women who are being denied their right to become women of letters.


We to the World: Bring Back Our Girls!
Reply from the world: They are your girls, not ours.

Memo to the World:
Armies have not yet managed
to spring our stolen school girls
from that pack of barking mad loco haram .
To remind you, here is a snapshot of them:

In this picture we see our lost girls swathed
in rough regulation grey dress.
From afar they look like wooden vessels
seized on a storm-tossed sea;
or a school graduation group portrait
from bad luck’s let them down academy.

TWOL Update

Dear readers,

This blog, thewomenofletters.wordpress.com will now be moving to thewomenofletters.com

The old address should automatically transfer you to the new one, but in case of technical difficulties, now you know how to find TWOL.

Thanks for reading!