Even if you don’t know the title, you’ve heard Vivaldi’s “The Four Seasons.” It’s one of the most beloved pieces of classical music around. In fact, its popularity probably works against it. Because the music is so commonly performed and so easy to listen to, it can be easy to write off its depth and inner beauty.
Which is why Thi Nguyen, associate artistic director of the Fresno Grand Opera, pondered for years a way to present “The Four Seasons” in a fresh and exciting way. The result: the world premiere of a program titled “A Life in 4 Seasons” that pairs an original film written by Nguyen, who also performs solo violin with a chamber orchestra.
I caught up with Nguyen via email to talk about the 8 p.m. Saturday concert at the Shaghoian Hall. Excerpts from that interview appear in Friday’s 7 section. Here’s the extended interview:
Question: What inspired you to do this project?
Answer: This goes way way back. My father (my first violin teacher) was always telling me stories that related directly to what he envisioned in the music. His stories were created out of thin air and caused a great impact on my early development. When at USC and afterwards, I had a great opportunity to be introduced to the movie industry. Performing sound scores from Batman to the Simpsons solidified that pathway of conceiving music. It was during that time that I rethought my process of interpretation of every work that I performed and started to create a screenplay in my mind on any given work of music. This process allowed me to better express my feelings and to create a concrete interpretation of the music. Regardless of the audience knowing what I was thinking or feeling, I felt my performances had greater impact on the audience because my feelings were clear and allowed a much more concise interpretation as a whole.
When did you start the project, and when did you get director Cooper Sy Blumenthal involved?
The thought of putting a film on the screen for “The Four Seasons” was first conceived in 2001. It had been kicking around in my head that long. I had spoken to my colleagues about the idea and finalizing more and more as time went by. I knew it was going to be a big project with lots of hurdles to overcome. Life intervenes and the project got shelved, but the conversations continued. Two years ago, Ron Eichman (the opera’s general director) was kicking around programming ideas and just happened to stumble on to this concept. Basically he just said, “You’ve been kicking this around your head for 10 years, let’s do it!” So, the process began … The introduction with Cooper Blumenthal started in spring of last year and the process has been evolving ever since. According to Cooper, this is such an innovative concept that it’s evolving every day for her.
Your screenplay is based on the anonymous sonnets upon which Vivaldi based his “Four Seasons.” Tell us a little about those sonnets and how you translated them to a different medium.
The sonnets, in my belief, are key in any type of interpretation of this work. For example, in Spring movement one, the sonnet describes the birds’ sweet song, lightning and thunder and a BLACK cloak covers the air. Some very powerful text that is heard quite dramatically in the music. The challenge was not to describe the beauty of spring and birds’ enchanting song, but to bring to life the darkness that is equally important in the sonnet and music. We are bringing the audience back in time to 1941 and the black cloak that covers the air is depicted as the invasion of Western Europe by Germany in WWII. The thunder and lightning is the war itself. The sweet song of the birds is the optimism and love of the couple depicted in the film. We are telling this story from the point of view of the 3rd generation grandson, remembering his grandparents and taking us through a journey from 1941 to present as experienced by his family, spanning 3 generations. ”The Four Seasons” in itself is like life, both bitter and sweet. It is of no surprise to me that Vivaldi picked these sonnets to write his music to and equally no surprise it has survived the passage of time to retain such universal popularity. Like all great work, the story is of the human condition and in itself is timeless.
How do you describe Blumenthal’s style of filmmaking? Can you give us an example of how an image in the film translates to a specific passage in the music?
It’s best to describe Blumenthal’s work as “Artistic” filmmaking. Visually stimulating, thought provoking, and creative storytelling. A few images come to mind when connecting directly to the sonnet. A passage of the sonnet states, “a black cloak covers the air” and is shown with a b&w clip of stock footage showing the black Nazi whale eating up western Europe and the topography of Europe that is in the wake of this mammoth is now covered over in black. The apposing clip of “return on to their enchanting song”, depicts a couple dancing and the happiness that is still part of spring. It’ll leave the audience laughing and a smile as we end the first movement of Spring.
As solo violinist, you will essentially be in control of the performance in terms of starting each movement and keeping you and the chamber orchestra in sync with the images. Is it a challenge for you to basically have to multitask while making music?
Absolutely, I love to multitask but this puts it at a whole new level for me. My role in the performance is to lead the orchestra, play the solo part (this is a series of four violin concertos), and to make sure that we stay sync with the film. Quite a challenge, but very rewarding. Seeing the film as I finalize my own performance has changed so much of my interpretation of color, articulation and sound. What Blumenthal added in imagery has given me much more depth to my interpretation. Like the saying, a picture is worth a thousand words, and so do the sounds that emanate from the violin.
Whenever a piece of music is played as much as “The Four Seasons,” it can almost be harder to get an audience to really “listen” to it because so many of us have already formed strong associations with it, either personal or commercial. (Wasn’t it once used to sell Lincoln town cars?) I find this project interesting because it seems to me it will be reprogramming, so to speak, some of the mental images we already have in favor of fresh new images from the film. Can you speak to this?
Yes, it is a distinctive detour from the traditional associations with the music’s mental images and also audibly, too. I believe by not taking this music down the path of nature and the traditional thoughts of the literal definition of the “seasons” of a calendar year will make it easier for most audiences to be open to a new interpretation. By redefining the meaning of the “seasons” away from the calendar year to the four parts of one’s own life, the audience we previewed segments of the film to seemed to be more acceptive to this pathway.
The concepts parallel everyone’s life, which I believe, has a universal understand that we, as human beings, do travel through the years in parallel to the seasons. In this process, I feel the audience can grasp onto the new approach readily because it is an approach that everyone can relate personally to.
What does “The Four Seasons” mean to you personally? Has that meaning changed for you over the years?
The work itself has always had a deep and thought provoking meaning to me. I have always felt that it did not get the serious approach it deserves. And for me, through the years of performing the work and conceptualizing the work, I have grown to respect and admire the work more and more. It’s a beautiful work of art and can easily be glanced at as such. But the more you look, you realize that there is so much depth and inner beauty that you rarely find in any work. There is no surprise why it has survived the passage of time and will continue to be at the forefront of great music far into the future.
What are some of the things you hope audiences take away from this event?
First and foremost, I would love for the audience to be entertained. Beyond that, my hope is that the music, film, and the emotional feeling derived from a live performance will continue to inspire everyone to support live performing arts. I hope to be able to do a small part in bridging a segment of the audience to classical music, to help make the art form more accessible and ultimately to inspire hope and enthusiasm.
Anything else you’d like to say?
Great questions! I guess the ultimate goal of this project is not to define for everyone what the meaning of this music is, just my own. But rather, it’s designed to demystify the classical music genre, yet inspire the audience to derive its own interpretation of music — any music.
Bee photo by Diana Baldrica