Composer, Conductor: This Couple Rhymes In Shakespeare Couplets

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At the Fort Worth Symphony Orchestra, Henrik Nánási is conducting world premiere of a work based on Shakespeare’s Sonnet 81. (Photo by J. Henry Fair)

Henrik Nánási was preparing to conduct the world premiere of a new symphonic work based on three Shakespeare sonnets back in 2020 when Covid struck, virtually wiping out his entire performance calendar from March to December of that year. Now From hence your memory death cannot take, scored for bass voice, clarinet solo, and string orchestra, is back on the boards at last, with premiere performances at the Fort Worth Symphony March 25-28.

The Hungarian composer, Veronika Ágnes Fáncsik, is Nánási’s wife. Her work is named for a line from Shakespeare’s Sonnet No. 81, “Or shall I live your epitaph to make,” which explores the idea that the poet’s words will be like a monument that endures for the ages, beyond the death of them both. Two other sonnets also appear: Number 66, “Then hate me when thou wilt,” and Number 90, “Tired of all these, for restful death I cry.” Speaking by telephone from Monte Carlo, where he was conducting a run of Massenet’s opera Werther, Nánási said that Fáncsik’s composition features a bass singer who imparts Shakespeare’s words to the implicit beloved. “But that beloved, the other character, is the clarinet, who cannot respond except through music, yet their dialogue is essentially the text of the sonnet.”

Hungarian composer Veronika Ágnes Fáncsik featured two voices in her work  – a male singer and a solo clarinet. (Veronika-Fancsik.com)

Vocal soloist Kevin Burdette, an American bass, sang in Thomas Adès’ The Tempest at the Metropolitan Opera and has a La Scala debut ahead, as well as multiple American credits including Santa Fe and San Francisco. The young clarinetist is Stanislav Chernyshev, recently named as the Fort Worth Symphony’s new principal clarinet.

The gender of Shakespeare’s beloved is not specified but is often referred to as the “fair youth,” the subject of many sonnets that Shakespeare probably wrote in his middle age. The clarinet itself has a huge range, from resonant depths to high soprano.

Nánási, who is also a composer himself, explained that there are parts in the piece where the voice is prominent, “but also others where all the dialogue is really between this clarinet and the orchestra, without the voice, and so there is a lot of opportunity for the listener to reflect back on the words that have been sung and their meaning.

Nánási was born in Pécs, Fáncsik in Budapest. The two were in Vienna together as students. Her music has been performed at the Komische Oper and at festivals in Vienna and Germany. But a string of Covid cancellations simply wiped out their calendars.

The conductor’s schedule has picked up recently with the Werther in Monte Carlo and upcoming stretches for Madama Butterfly in Bilbao, Roméo et Juliette in Florence, and Carmen at Lyric Opera of Chicago. The Royal Opera House’s production of Janáček’s Jenůfa, which Nánási recently conducted, has been nominated for an Olivier.

Nánási is now 47. Among his losses to Covid in 2020 and 2021 were La traviata in Madrid, Eugene Onegin in Munich, Salome in Paris, and the Austro-Hungarian Alexander Zemlinsky’s Der Zwerg (The Dwarf) in San Francisco. In 1938, near the end of his life, Zemlinsky and his wife fled from the Nazi’s Jewish purge to the safety of New York. The cancellation of Der Zwerg was particularly painful for Nánási, who expressed “a big, nostalgic admiration for the emigrated generation.

“Bartók is well known, of course, but there were many others, and Zemlinsky is still almost unknown among them, really rarely performed. It was a fantastic discovery for me. I first heard a recording of Der Zwerg and then I saw it at the Deutsche Oper in Berlin, and right away I was touched by it. It helps to be a composer, I think, to better understand what his intentions are behind what he writes, and the circumstances of why he writes this way. What these past emigrant artists had in common is that so many of them never really recovered.

“How difficult it must have been for those people, whether they were Jewish themselves or didn’t agree with the Nazis in Hungary and wanted to flee, but still they were homesick, and often unsuccessful. I think of Heinrich Mann, the older brother of Thomas Mann, and so many different kinds of artists.

“When I met the name of Zemlinsky and started to listen to some of his astonishing music, I remember feeling so very happy to have found a really special and very unique music that is rich in the tradition of German music that he comes from – Brahms, Mahler, and Schoenberg, his friend. All the influences are there. He was part of that time In Germany when composers tried to reach the extreme limits of tonality and go beyond.”

In her own description of From hence your memory death cannot take, which Fáncsik described as “one of the most beautiful tasks of my compositional work to date,” she explained that once the premiere, originally planned for Berlin, was canceled due to Covid, she considered it a “stroke of luck” to be able to relive Shakespeare’s sonnets for a second time. “And so it was with my Opus 46, which was once already completed and got my blessing a few years ago. This (delay) gave me the opportunity to … enrich an already left creative world … by the renewed deepening.”

Nánási spoke enthusiastically of the quiet world Fáncsik has created for the new work: “The clarinet has this natural lyrical sound, but also a wide range, not only of pitch but of dynamic possibility, from brilliant to the softest of all softs, so you can require a long pianissimo from the clarinet almost to the point of not hearing it, as the orchestra and clarinet reflect on death to the very last thread. I find this quiet to be very important, because the other pieces on the program [Strauss’ Don Juan and Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony] require big forces that make your ears small.

“This piece will make your ears bigger. You have to listen more carefully.”