Obituaries

Obituaries

Impresario/provocateur Gerard Mortier; musicologist Joseph Kerman; maestro Gerd Albrecht.

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Mortier in Madrid, 2013
© Javier del Real 2014
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Albrecht in 2007
© ullsteinbild/TopFoto/ArenaPal 2014

GERARD MORTIER
Ghent, Belgium, November 25, 1943 — Brussels, March 8, 2014

Innovation and controversy were the two constants in Gerard Mortier's career. As director, successively, of the Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, the Salzburg Festival, the Paris Opera and Madrid's Teatro Real, he was an unswerving advocate of modern opera and of radical approaches to the standard repertoire, pursuing a vision of opera as a vital part of contemporary society. Along the way the Belgian impresario consistently garnered admiration and indignation in equal measures. Provocation was his element, and nobody in the world of opera was better at delivering it than he was.

Mortier, who died on March 9 after a long bout with cancer, was an incendiary even as a student at the University of Ghent, where he organized a club protesting the dowdiness of Belgium's operatic fare: the students would hurl rotten tomatoes at the end of dull performances. After studying law and journalism, he became an opera administrator, apprenticing with Christoph von Dohnányi in Frankfurt and Rolf Liebermann in Paris. He was appointed head of La Monnaie in 1981 and set about revitalizing the repertory by bringing in directors such as Patrice Chéreau, Peter Stein and Peter Sellars. He also instituted a complete physical overhaul of the house itself. His ambitious initiatives ran up impressive deficits but also brought unprecedented prestige to the company, and to the city of Brussels itself. 

Typically, his tenure at La Monnaie set off its share of imbroglios. He commissioned John Adams's Death of Klinghoffer, a work whose ambiguous treatment of Palestinian terrorists still raises hackles. He installed Mark Morris and his troupe as the resident dance company; Morris rankled the staid Brussels audience by disparaging his predecessor, Maurice Béjart, and by choreographing a piece in which everyone onstage ended up nude.

But the commotion that Mortier created in Brussels paled in comparison to the furor that surrounded him in Salzburg, where he took over in 1991. He was an odd choice for the post: Salzburg for decades had been dominated by the late Herbert von Karajan, who presided over lavish, deeply conservative productions of the standard repertory, with superstar singers onstage and the Vienna Philharmonic making lush sounds in the pit. Mortier made no secret of his desire for change, antagonizing the hidebound Austrian press with denunciations of the old regime and the deadening influence of the big record companies. A week before the start of Mortier's first Salzburg season, Riccardo Muti, a mainstay under Karajan, walked out in protest rather than lead a revisionist production of La Clemenza di Tito. The signature offering that summer was Peter Sellars's production of Messiaen's monumental St. François d'Assise — as spectacular in its way as anything Karajan ever offered but light years away in sensibility. The opening-night curtain call brought a cacophony of cheers and boos; no doubt, this was just the response that Mortier had desired. 

In his ten years in Salzburg, Mortier offered the festival's first productions of Lulu, The Rake's Progress and Le Grand Macabre, along with new works such as Berio's Cronaca del Luogo (starring Hildegard Behrens). Despite the defection of portions of the haute bourgeois crowd that formerly flocked to Karajan performances, the box office remained healthy and the festival solvent during Mortier's tenure. In 2000, when Jörg Haider's far-right Freedom Party joined Austria's coalition government, Mortier resigned from Salzburg in protest, then later rescinded, returning that summer and the next to serve out the remainder of his contract. 

The scandals continued. A 2000 Hans Neuenfels production of Così Fan Tutte earned the public opprobrium of its prima donna, Karita Mattila, who was required to sing "Come scoglio" while leading two leather-clad men around the stage like dogs. But Mortier saved his biggest affront for last, saying farewell to Salzburg during the 2001 festival with a Neuenfels-directed Fledermaus that featured Orlofsky as a cokehead, Frosch as a Marlene Dietrich imitator and Eisenstein and Rosalinde as Hermann Göring and Eva Braun. This desecration of the beloved Viennese confection was widely, and no doubt accurately, seen as Mortier's final gesture of contempt for Austria and its politics. 

After Salzburg, Mortier became founding director of the Ruhr Triennale, the avant-garde festival of music, theater, dance and art. Next he landed in Paris, starting at the Opéra in 2004 and bringing his patented mix of unusual repertory (St. François was part of his initial season) and iconoclastic takes on the classics. In 2007, facing the Paris post's mandatory retirement age of sixty-five, he embarked on the strangest and most contentious leg of his career by accepting the general directorship of the struggling New York City Opera. He mandated the cancellation of a whole season, 2008–09, while the New York State Theater, the company's home, underwent acoustic renovations. He planned an all-twentieth-century season (including St. François) for 2009–10, but it never came to pass: when the company's board raised only $36 million of a promised $60 million budget, Mortier resigned. NYCO never quite recovered from the unfortunate episode; the company ceased operations in 2013. 

Mortier took over the Teatro Real in 2013, once again mounting St. François — this time in a sports arena — along with fare such as a production of Così Fan Tutte by film director Michael Haneke that turned the farce into a grueling bout of sadomasochistic gamesmanship. In the fall of 2013, Mortier revealed that he was being treated for pancreatic cancer, meanwhile criticizing the company's decision to consider only Spanish candidates in the search for his replacement. In retaliation, the executive committee fired him but quickly brought him back on board as "artistic advisor." In this role, he oversaw the premiere in early 2014 of Charles Wuorinen's Brokeback Mountain, a pet project originally intended for City Opera. Gaunt but proud, he gave a series of interviews at the time that proved his fighting spirit was still very much intact. "Although death is near," he told the Spanish newspaper ABC, "I will not change my ideas about theater." 

For all the range of Mortier's activities, what is most remarkable about his career is its consistency. From first to last, he remained true to his aesthetic and moral vision. "I agree that art should entertain," Mortier said in 1995. "But it should also ask questions and stir us up." 

FRED COHN

JOSEPH KERMAN
London, England, April 3, 1924 — Berkeley, CA, March 17, 2014

Critic, scholar, teacher and musicologist, Kerman was best known for his book Opera as Drama (1956), which proposed the thesis that it is the composer whose vision creates the theatrical and dramatic validity of an opera. Kerman's tastes were exacting: his chief operatic enthusiasms were the works of Mozart and Verdi, and he had little respect for the works of Richard Strauss and Puccini, famously writing that Tosca was a "shabby little shocker." 

Kerman published many subsequent books, the most influential of which was Contemplating Music (1985), which offered a transformative interdisciplinary approach to the study of Western Music. Kerman retired in 1994 from UC Berkeley, where he had joined the faculty in 1951.

GERD ALBRECHT
Essen, Germany, July 19, 1935 — Berlin, February 2, 2014

The conductor began his career on the music staff of Stuttgart State Opera in 1958. He soon moved on to leading positions in Mainz (1961–63), Lübeck (1962–66), Kassel (1966–72) and at Deutsche Oper Berlin (1972–74). Albrecht was also music director of the Zurich Tonhalle Orchestra (1975–80) and general music director of the Hamburg State Opera (1988–97). 

Albrecht's repertoire ranged from Mozart and Mercadante to Schumann, Mendelssohn and Brahms. A champion of twentieth-century music, Albrecht was associated with the music of Schoenberg, Berg, Webern and Hindemith, as well as with his near-contemporaries György Ligeti, Krzysztof Penderecki and Alfred Schnittke. Albrecht led the world premiere of Aribert Reimann's Lear in Munich (1978), as well as the opera's U.S. premiere at San Francisco Opera (1981). He was also a frequent guest in Salzburg, Vienna, Edinburgh and Lucerne.

Albrecht was never afraid of controversy, whether it was musical or political. In 1991, he was elected principal conductor of the Czech Philharmonic, becoming the first foreign-born maestro to hold the post. Although some observers felt Albrecht's exacting, academic interpretive style was ill-suited to the boldly emotional music of Dvorˇák, Smetana and Janácˇek, Albrecht's relationship with the orchestra was generally positive until 1994, when he refused an invitation for the Czech Philharmonic to play a concert at the Vatican honoring the memory of the victims of the Holocaust. Albrecht stated that the orchestra had insufficient time to rehearse for the concert, but many felt that the real reason he declined was that the Vatican had asked the American conductor Gilbert Levine, rather than Albrecht himself, to lead the orchestra that day. Albrecht averred that his bad press — which included a statement from Czech president Vaclav Havel condemning the conductor's decision — was the result of lingering anti-German sentiment in the Czech Republic. Further troubles surfaced in 1995, when Albrecht unapologetically admitted to transferring $100,000 in royalties that the Philharmonic earned on foreign tours into his personal account. He resigned his post with the Philharmonic in 1996, citing "political pettiness." 

From 2000 to 2004, Albrecht led the Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra in Copenhagen, where he interrupted a 2003 concert to denounce from the podium Denmark's support of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He later apologized. Albrecht was also principal conductor of the Yomiuri Nippon Symphony Orchestra in Tokyo for a decade (1997–2007) and remained conductor laureate at the time of his death. spacer

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