We are here to encourage the development of gifted young singers and to stimulate the growth of New York City's invaluable chamber opera companies. But we will not neglect the Metropolitan Opera either. Get ready for bouquets and brickbats.

Sunday, December 21, 2014



We spent a most satisfying evening yesterday at Casa Galicia in Astoria, Queens. Not only were we royally entertained and well fed but we managed to learn something new about Spain.  Galicia is in the northwest corner of the country, bordering Portugal, and retains its own identity.  Half of the inhabitants speak Galician which is close to Portuguese.  Casa Galicia is a home away from home for Galician folk in New York and provides a center for cultural identity, maintaining a music school for the youth.

Two stars of the musical firmament provided the excellent entertainment.  The excellent soprano Amaya Arberas opened the program with selections from Händel's Nine German Arias, HWV 202-210.  This work is said to be the inspiration for Haydn's Die Schöpfung, inasmuch as the text refers to the creation of the universe. We particularly enjoyed the aria about the creation of flowers and the one about the rolling of the waves. There were multiple melismatic passages of great beauty.

Ms. Arberas, whose Spanish singing we have reviewed several times, showed her facility in German; following this group of songs she sang in Italian--a lovely aria by Claudio Monteverdi "Quel sguardo sdegnosetto", offering the opportunity to show off her ease with fioritura. Accompaniment by Albert Carbonell was by electronic keyboard since a harpsichord was nowhere to be seen or heard.  It sufficed.

Bruno Peña was onstage to contribute some gorgeous pieces for violin.  He performed "Meditación" from Jules Massenet's Thaïs with great sensitivity and Pablo Sarasate's "Playera" with suitable Spanish passion.  Many phrases concluded with the rhythmic "fa-mi-do" we love so well, often heard in flamenco guitar.

Although our taste favors the Classical, we confess to enjoying the second half of the program in which our versatile Ms. Arberas gave the jazziest rendition of James Lord Pierpont's "Jingle Bells" we have ever heard, overcoming our fatigue with Christmas music.  The chorus of Casa Galicia entertained with a program of Christmas carols from many lands, sung mostly in Spanish.  The audience favorite was clearly José Feliciano's "Feliz Navidad"  the melody of which has been running through our head all night, as good melodies tend to do.

What a privilege to spend an evening exploring another culture!  If we were a food critic we would go on and on about the generous meal that followed but we will close here and wish our readers a very Happy Holiday season.  There will most likely be a break in reviewing until the new year.  We have enjoyed sharing our opinions with you during 2014 and look forward to the many fine musical events coming up in 2015.

ⓒ meche kroop

Saturday, December 20, 2014


Thomas Muraco and cast of La Bohème at Manhattan School of Music

Giacomo Puccini's La Bohème is arguably the favorite opera of many; however, some opera lovers of our acquaintance refuse to see it unless there is a notable debut in one of the roles at The Metropolitan Opera.  Indeed, the Zeffirelli production is spectacular and astonishingly realistic and also tends to overwhelm the story and the singers.  Not so the production we enjoyed last night at the Manhattan School of Music.

Conductor Thomas Muraco guided his Opera Repertoire Ensemble through an intimate and involving production; he clearly loves this music and his young artists, most of whom are graduate students working on their Master's Degree.  If great sums of money were not lavished on the production, compensation was in the form of attention to detail and the achievement of intimacy.  The emotional intensity built slowly from the first act--all horseplay and romance--to the last, which left us in tears.  Such involvement is worth more than fancy sets.  What more do we want from opera than to be transported to another century, another country, another life?

In this case, we are in late 19th c. Paris in the world of starving artists and the women who love them.  Tuberculosis is running rampant and would claim the life of Mimi by the final act, forever altering the lives of these carefree young people. We are made to think of the late AIDS crisis which claimed so many young lives.

The orchestra was supplanted by two pianos, four hands, belonging to Jeremy Chan and Dura Jun with Yeon Hwa Chung's harp making significant contributions.  Mr. Muraco himself did the orchestration and we were able to hear strands of melody and motives that have gone unnoticed when hearing a full orchestra.  

The singing and acting were equally impressive.  No director was credited and we were given to understand that the young artists came up with the stage business themselves.  Perhaps that was why we found the storytelling to be so effective.  Who knows youth better than the young?  Witness the horseplay in Act I and Act IV.

In Bryn Holdsworth we met a slightly different Mimi--not quite as innocent as other Mimi's we have seen.  She used her lovely expressive soprano and her highly expressive face and gesture to show us a young woman a bit desperate for her next meal, a bit sly in her seductiveness, a bit manipulative--but also capable of deep love for Rodolfo.  It was a stellar performance, given her fine phrasing and just right vibrato. We couldn't take our eyes off her as she eavesdropped on the duet between Rodolfo and Marcello in Act III as she= is being confronted with the loss of her own life.

Brian Michael Moore made an ardent Rodolfo and his inability to accept Mimi's death at the end arose from a deep understanding of the character. He knows she is dying by Act III but he doesn't really let it register. He is living in denial. His fine tenor faltered a bit in Act I, probably a consequence of pushing for volume at the top of his register, but he settled in nicely for the rest of the performance.

Young Kwang Yoo's pleasing baritone was just right for the lovesick Marcello. He's the one the two lovers consult (separately) when their romance is in trouble; he reacts just the way a young man would.  And then, just as a young man would, he behaves in a manner contradictory to his advice. His duet with Mimi was just gorgeous.

As Musetta, his love interest, soprano Yun Melody Xie played the part to the hilt, much to the audience's delight.  Her bright instrument and expressive body conveyed everything we needed to know about this survivor who uses every tool at her disposal to get by.  Her Act II aria "Quando me'n vo" was spectacular and so was her red gown.  We loved the way she tormented her elderly date Alcindoro (Stefano de Peppo) who also played the part of Benoit the landlord in Act I.  What a handful!!!

The delights of Act I involved not only Rodolfo and Marcello but also Colline the philosopher and Schaunard the musician.  Schaunard (excellent baritone Juan Daniel Melo) tells his hilarious tale of poisoning the parrot and the three "bohemians" sit around the table devouring the provisions he has supplied owing to his latest job.  His fine baritone went unnoticed by his flatmates but not by us.

Joshua Arky used his bass voice well in his portrayal of Colline.  The horseplay from Act I has been recapitulated in Act IV but the tone is rapidly changed when the dying Mimi is carried upstairs.  Everyone is sacrificing something and he is pawning his "Vecchia zimarra". Clearly, he is saying goodbye to his innocent youth, not just his old overcoat.

Similarly when Musetta is praying for Mimi, her candle goes out just about the time Mimi expires.  Witnessing the story in a small space, up close and personal, provides many such precious moments that we will recall the next time we see the opera. Unlike some of our friends, we hope that won't be too far in the future and we won't need to wait for a big debut at the Met.

Thursday, December 18, 2014


Eric Idle, Victoria Clark, William Ferguson, Lauren Worsham and Marc Kudish
photo by Erin Baiano

“Tis the season to be jolly... and jolly we were Monday night at Carnegie Hall when the Collegiate Chorale presented the New York premiere of NOT THE MESSIAH (He’s a Very Naughty Boy).  Inspired by Monty Python’s The Life of Brian and written by Eric Idle and John Du Prez, the work can be taken as a parody of the life of Jesus, in the form of an oratorio.  But what an oratorio!  We lost count of how many different styles of music we heard—mariachi, flamenco, country, Doo-wop, spirituals and a quartet of bagpipers, members of New York Metro Pipe Band.

Not only is it the season for jollity but it also seems to be the week for parody and gender bending.  Not only have we enjoyed the parodies of Christmas songs brought to us by New York Festival of Song (see prior review) but also the parody of ballet brought to us by Les Ballets Trocadero de Monte Carlo in which men get on point and get us to giggle over every classical ballet trope.  

In order to create effective parody one must have great affection for the thing one is satirizing.  We are reminded of the late (but not forgotten) La Gran Scena Opera Company that parodied great divas with great affection.

In this case, the Mother of the non-Messiah is named Mandy and her baby, fathered by a Roman, is named Brian.  Broadway star Victoria Clark, a mezzo-soprano, sang the role of Mandy with her usual pizazz and opera star William Ferguson lent his sweet tenor to the titular role.  His love interest (Yes!) named Judith was winningly sung by soprano Lauren Worsham who slips into operatic roles as easily as she does into cabaret and Broadway. Ms. Worsham and Mr. Ferguson sang so beautifully together we mentally cast them as Candide and Cunegonde.

Eric Idle narrated and sang while successful contributions came from bass Marc Kudisch. The stage was filled with the splendid Orchestra of St. Luke’s backed up by the enormous Collegiate Chorale whose singing was so perfectly in unison and so imbued with fine diction that we understood every word. More credit to Ted Sperling, Director and Conductor!

Not so with much of the other singing which was “enhanced” by body mics rendering much of the very clever dialogue muffled.  This was the only flaw in an otherwise sensational evening of broad satire and belly laughs. Happily, Mr. Ferguson and Ms. Worsham managed to be understood. When lyrics are that clever we want to hear every word. Titles would have been welcome.

In “We Love Sheep”, Lynne Marie Rosenberg came onstage with three very realistic looking sheep who opened their mouths to sing along, creating an unparalleled moment of glee.  

Mr. Ferguson’s solo “I Want to Change the World” was incredibly moving and Mr. Idle’s “I Want to Be a Girl” was incredibly hilarious. Mr. Kudish had a very funny song “What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us”, a good satire of colonialism. 

Brian wants freedom from Roman rule and peace for his people; he joins The People’s Front of Judea and meets Judith.  They are caught in flagrante delicto by his mother.  Brian is just a very naughty boy, or so says his mother. Judith sings the lovely “You’re the One”.  The people are convinced he is the Messiah.  He denies it.  They insist. They find his sandal and, in a Cinderella moment, track him down. Mr. Kudish was particularly funny in “Hail to the Shoe”.

Nothing is sacred to Monty Python nor to Mr. Idle and Mr. Du Prez.  Even the crucifixion becomes an object for laughter.  Mr. Idle portrays a poor guy who gets crucified every morning and taken down every night.  The closing song was “Always Look on the Bright Side”.

Significantly, no one walked out in protest.  We can assume that the delighted audience knew exactly what they were getting into.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, December 16, 2014


Joshua Breitzer, Joshua Jeremiah, Ben Bliss, Olivia Betzen, Alex Mansoori, Wallis Giunta and John Brancy

Last night marked the fifth edition of Steven Blier's annual Christmas treat as part of the "Sing for Your Supper--NYFOS After Hours" series hosted by the affable Henry at the eponymous friendly and comfortable Upper West Side restaurant. These delightful evenings always have a theme and the theme for the December show is (trumpet fanfare) "A Goyishe Christmas to you!--Yuletide Songs by Jewish Composers".

The beloved Steven Blier serves as pianist, arranger and raconteur, regaling the appreciative audience with anecdotes and gossip about the composers, in this case many Jewish composers who had changed their names.  For example, Frank Loesser composed "Baby It's Cold Outside" to sing with his wife; the song was picked up for the show Neptune's Daughter and the couple divorced.

The song was performed by mezzo-soprano Wallis Giunta and baritone John Brancy and we feel as if we actually heard it for the first time.  All the seduction lay in the voice and gestures; it seemed as if it were a scene in a film.  If this pair is not opera's next glamour couple we will eat our program!  

Rémy Yulzari joined them on the double bass and also accompanied Ms. Giunta in her lovely solo "What Are You Doing New Year's Eve" also by Loesser.  His bass playing equalled the expressiveness of her singing.  The instrument fairly spoke.  Or sang.

Mr. Brancy also had a solo--he sang "O Holy Night" by Adolphe Adam (possibly Jewish but evidence is contradictory) in both English and French; his voice has such a wealth of expressiveness behind it that we were moved close to tears.  He also provided an encore later in the evening--"I'll Be Home For Christmas".

Mr. Blier is fond of gender bending and "Winter Wonderland" was given a new slant, performed by Mr. Brancy and Joshua Jeremiah, accompanied by clarinetist Alan Kay. The cosy pair in their winter hats had the audience in stitches, especially when they were pretending the snowman was Parson Brown.

Even more gender bending was enjoyed when excellent tenor Ben Bliss (just seen at The Metropolitan Opera in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg) sang one of the songs made famous by Eartha Kitt--"Santa Baby", written by Joan Javits in the 50's.  Here it was called "Santa Buddy" with appropriate rewriting of the Christmas list.

There was humor aplenty in the course of the program.  Joshua Jeremiah was hilarious in "Candle in My Window", also known as "God Bless the Christmas Jew" by Levitsky and Miller.  He has an expansive way of getting a song across as we noted in his duet with Cantor Joshua Breitzer--"Hannukah in Santa Monica", a Tom Lehrer song filled with his customary wit. They were accompanied by Mr. Kay who surely has a Klezmer background.

Cantor Breitzer regaled the audience with a Yiddish version of "Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer".  Even if we didn't understand the words we enjoyed the sound of the language and the spirit of fun.  Mr. Kay and Mr. Yulzari accompanied.

Alex Mansoori contributed yet more fun to the evening with David Friedman's very funny "My Simple Christmas Wish" to which he gave a most theatrical delivery.  He also showed another side in "Silver Bells" (Jay Livingston/Ray Evans) which, as explained by Mr. Blier, refers to the Salvation Army collecting money for the less fortunate.  Now that's something we did not know and perhaps neither did you.

The entire group, joined by Olivia Betzen opened and closed the program with ensemble arrangements of "Hark the Herald Angels Sing" and Irving Berlin's "White Christmas" involving some lovely humming in harmony.  There was also a jolly encore of "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree".  Let it be noted that the English diction was excellent.  We would not have wanted to miss a single word.

It was a fine show leaving the audience happy as can be.  Too bad we must wait a year for the next edition.

© meche kroop

Monday, December 15, 2014


Angela Mannino, Matthew Tuell and Tyler Putnam in Markheim (photo by Tina Buckman)
John Kaneklides and Carolina Castells in Slow Dusk (photo by Tina Buckman)

A double bill of Carlisle Floyd music-theater pieces was presented this past week by the ten year old Little Opera Theater of New York  with two rotating casts.  The first piece Slow Dusk was the composer’s first opera, written in 1949, and suffers from a less than dramatic libretto, Floyd’s own.  He presents himself a the poet of rural America just as Stephen Sondheim is the poet of late 20th c. Manhattan.  

The story concerns a young woman Sadie, beautifully sung by soprano Carolina Castells, who performed a lovely aria filled with foreboding.  Sadie is in love with young Micah, perfectly sung and acted by tenor John Kaneklides whose star is on the rise.  Their marriage is forbidden by Aunt Sadie and the reason had to be learned by consulting Wikipedia.  The exposition might have been given by Aunt Sue, sung by Janice Meyerson, whose interesting mezzo was marred by poor diction.  English is quite difficult to sing in a way that the audience can comprehend but the other three singers succeeded admirably.  Unfortunately Ms. Meyerson’s acting was way over the top and not in line with the mood of the piece. Baritone Robert Balonek made a fine appearance as Jess but we never figured out if he was Sue’s uncle or brother.  That’s what happens when one can’t understand the words.

The chamber orchestra comprised nine strings, harp, four winds and a wonderful percussionist (Charles Kiger) led by the excellent conductor Richard Cordova, who brought out all the nuances of Floyd's instrumental writing. The chamber arrangement by Inessa Zaretsky and Raymond J. Lustig worked well, even without a clarinet. The winds were particularly evocative over a carpet of sound laid down by the strings.  The orchestra nearly stole the show since Floyd’s vocal lines struck our ears as being less than melodic. 

The direction by Philip Shneidman was effective and Neil Patel’s simple set (lit by Nick Solyom) evoked an impoverished rural farm in the South.  Lara De Bruin's frumpy costumes were right on target.  The same excellent team was responsible for the more dramatically interesting Markheim which Floyd adapted from a Robert Louis Stevenson story in 1966.  It is a gothic tale taking place at Christmastime in 1880 in a pawnshop.  This gave Patel and De Bruin an opportunity to show their stuff.  The set looked exactly the way one would expect and the Victorian costumes were superb.

The singing was excellent all around.  Tenor Brent Reilly Turner created a very disagreeable pawnbroker of the Ebenezer Scrooge ilk. His ringing sound lent weight to the role as he toyed with his client, the reprobate aristocrat Markheim who has squandered his family fortune by gambling and is under the gun to repay some cutthroats.  He is guilty of theft, seduction and abandonment, blackmail and extortion—another thoroughly unlikable character.  But oh, what a fine baritone has Tyler Putnam whom we well remember from last summer at the Santa Fe Opera!  Both men’s acting was convincing.

It came as no great shock when Markheim strangled the pawnbroker who refuses to lend him money on a stolen work of art.  Enter….The Stranger!  This character, excellently portrayed by tenor Matthew Tuell, might be the devil and he might be a hallucination but he tries to provoke the eponymous anti-hero to murder Tess, the maid who is returning to the shop to retrieve a parcel.  Soprano Angela Mannino has a lovely stage presence with voice to match and the only character about whom we could care.  We were quite relieved when Markheim decided to spare her life and asked her to call the police.  This is evidence for the dramatic success of the story.

The work was bookended by a quartet of carolers comprising Ms. Castells, Ms. Meyerson, Mr. Kaneklides and Mr. Balonek, all from the curtain-raiser.  The overall quality of the production suited us more than the material.  But that’s just a consequence of our 19th c. Italian ears.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, December 13, 2014


The brilliant cast of Ernest Bloch's Macbeth at Manhattan School of Music

The opening scene of the opera presented the three witches on a windswept heath in Scotland.  The eerie music gives aural representation to the visual image of three very scary creatures cavorting on a battlefield of fallen soldiers--plucking out eyes, cutting off hands and drinking blood.  World class director Dona D. Vaughn has made sure that we get the message right from the start.  Wars are born and bred in hell and only hellish creatures reap the "benefits".

The witches were fantastically costumed by Daniel James Cole with Hair and Makeup Designer Anne Ford-Coates' contributions; branches sprouted from their heads and the herky-jerky movements of their fingers became twiglike.  The three singers portraying the witches gave evidence of intense instruction in movement as well as voice; they were soprano Anna Dugan, mezzo Minyoung Kim, and mezzo Michelle Siemens.  Their fine work established the mood for a riveting evening of musical drama.

Ernest Bloch's Macbeth premiered in Paris at the Opéra-Comique in 1910 with a libretto by Edmond Fleg, who adapted it from the Shakespeare play.  It hews fairly closely to the original play with liberties taken for musical and dramatic purposes. Comparisons with Verdi's opera are unnecessary.  This is a very different work and stands on its own as an underappreciated masterpiece.  Thankfully, it was sung in the original French--for the first time in the USA. The phrasing and inflection of the language and music were admirably consonant; we would not wish to hear this opera in English!

There are no longueurs here; the work moved along at a rapid pace sustained by the propulsive music which seems to serve the psychology of the characters.  By turns mysterious, alarming, seductive, cacophonous, or introspective it gave us insight into the thoughts and perceptions of the characters.  Fortunately, the French conductor Laurent Pillot was on hand to guide the fine players of the Manhattan School of Music Orchestra.  The winds were particularly on point.  The textures and harmonies of Bloch's music are compelling.  At times we heard echoes of Debussy; at other times we thought of Richard Strauss. The interludes between scenes were astonishingly beautiful.

The singing was superb all around with French diction so accurate that we were actually able to understand the words.  In the titular role we were impressed by baritone Robert Mellon whose full-throated voice sailed over the orchestra.  He portrayed the conflicted Thane with subtle nuance and scored high in believability. His hallucinatory aria when he sees the dagger was masterful.

As he triumphed over his remorse and shame, Lady Macbeth, originally psychopathic in her lack of guilt, took on the mantle of remorse. Soprano Alaysha Fox sang the role well and was convincing both in her seductiveness in Act I and her aria in Act III ("Out out damned spot").

As King Duncan, tenor Elliott Paige (well remembered from his starring role in Orlando Paladino last year) was as effective in a serious role as he was in a comedic one.  We loved the way his character's benevolence and goodwill were reflected in the orchestral accompaniment.  Sadly, he got killed off in Act I!

As his son Malcolm, the fine tenor Carlton Moe was crowned at the end with great rejoicing from the excellent chorus.  Kudos to Miriam Charney Chorus Master!

Macduff, leader of the opposition, was sung by the excellent baritone Xiaomeng Zhang who lived up to the promise made by his earlier appearances.  As his poor wife, soprano Alexis Aimé made a fine appearance with mezzo Kendra Broom convincing as her cocky son.  It was heartrending to witness their senseless murder.

All other roles were well sung, including James Ludlam as Banquo, Xiaoming Tian as a herald, and Joshua Arky as an old man.  Most of the singers were graduate level students working on their Masters of Music but Mr. Mellon is a graduate and now a guest artist.

It is no small feat to get everything working together and last night was a perfect example of musicianship and stagecraft joining forces to produce a work that kept us riveted for a few hours.  If the Metropolitan Opera could put together a production like this in which the intentions of the composer and librettist were so honored, we might still be a subscriber.

There is a matinee performance on Sunday.  A word to the wise....

© meche kroop

Friday, December 12, 2014


Amanda Lynn Bottoms, Aaron Mor, and Kelsey Lauritano

Three singers from the Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts coached by Cameron Stowe showed their stuff yesterday and what fine stuff it was!  These lieder recitals at Juilliard offer an incredible opportunity to hear the stars of tomorrow.  The liederabend gives them the chance to try out material in front of an audience and to work with students from the Collaborative Piano Division.

Tenor Aaron Mor exhibited an interesting darkish colored tenor as he performed a trio of songs by Franz Schubert, a composer whose songwriting gifts have never been equalled.  The three he selected are not as well known as the more famous ones but they were no less lovely.  Collaborative pianist Kristen Doering opened the set with "Die Sterne" in which she successfully emphasized the pattern in the piano which rises through several successive keys.

The song is filled with beautiful imagery of the night sky and we enjoyed Mr. Mor's lovely phrasing. "Vor meiner Wiege" is a more disturbing song with text by the same poet (Karl Gottfried von Leitner) drawing an analogy between the cradle and the coffin.  Mr. Mor successfully captured the nuances.  But it was the poetry of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe which inspired Schubert to write such gorgeous music for "Auf dem See".

There were two excellent mezzo-sopranos on the program and we were so pleased to note that they sounded very different from one another.  We confess we get bored with voices that sound generic.

Amanda Lynn Bottoms, accompanied by Joel Harder's sensitive playing, commanded the stage with the captivating texture of her dusky instrument.  The vibrato struck us as just right and she used gesture successfully to illuminate Arnold Schoenberg's difficult songs, particularly the mysterious "Erwartung" with text by Richard Dehmel, who also contributed the poetry for the equally elusive "Jesus Bettelt" and "Erhebung".

Somewhat more accessible were the songs of Hugo Wolf from his Spanisches Liederbuch sung by the expressive Kelsey Lauritano, accompanied by the similarly expressive Edward Kim.  In "Klinge, klinge, mein Pandero" his fingers literally flew over the keys.

Ms. Lauritano connected well with the material and we particularly enjoyed "Sie blasen zum Abmarsch" in which a woman despairs over her lover's departure for battle.  "Dereinst, dereinst, Gedanke mein" and "Bedeckt mich mit Blumen" are sad songs about death so we were glad the program ended with the charming "Wer tat deinem Füsslein weh?".

Notable in Ms. Lauritano's performance was her superb German diction.  It is nearly universal among young singers to be afraid of the final "ch"; Ms. Lauritano's pronunciation was absolutely perfect.

All told, it was a fine recital.  If you have not yet experienced one of these monthly events, we urge you to attend.  Tickets are free and available online.

© meche kroop

Thursday, December 11, 2014


Babette Hierholzer, Elizabeth Wimmer and Nils Neubert

Kim Smith

Two major musical events on one snowy Wednesday night!  Only in New York.  Finding out that the two very different events were related tickled us no end.

We began the evening with a recital presented by the German Forum, a worthy foundation which had strangely escaped our attention.  Their goals are consonant with ours and we were delighted to have "discovered" them.  Their mission is to introduce emerging European artists--both vocal and instrumental--to the New York audience.  What is unique about the German Forum is that vocal and instrumental repertoire are presented on the same program and also that expert speakers are chosen to introduce the programs and to provide interesting insights into the compositions.

Among this group of speakers we recognized several of our favorite people:  Ira Siff, Margaret Juntwait, Ken Benson and August Ventura.  Among the artists presented over the last ten years were Nathalie Mittelbach, Michael Kelly, and (drum roll please) cabaret artist Kim Smith whom we had scheduled to review later that evening!  Only in New York!!!!

The German Forum recital, a musical tribute to Alma Mahler's famous composer friends, was introduced by Donna Drewes, Associate Professor of the Humanities at New York University.  She is an excellent speaker and spoke of Alma Mahler's role as muse.  Her life touched the lives of many composers of the early 20th c. and she herself, taught by Alexander von Zemlinsky, composed a wealth of lieder until husband number one, Gustav Mahler, insisted she stop.  Many fascinating details of her rather racy life were touched upon before the music began.

Songs by conductor Bruno Walter (who knew!), Alban Berg, Gustav Mahler, Joseph Marx, Alexander von Zemlinsky, Leonard Bernstein, and Alma Mahler herself were sung by soprano Elizabeth Wimmer, whom we were delighted to hear for the first time, and tenor Nils Neubert whom we have reviewed at least thrice in the past two years. Hearing lieder sung by native German speakers was a special treat.

Ms. Wimmer has a lovely bright soprano with some beautifully floated top notes and a lot of skill as a storyteller. She can decrescendo to a delicate pianissimo and effectively handled the high tessitura in the Korngold.  But what we enjoyed the most was her storytelling in Gustav Mahler's songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. We are very fond of melody and have been humming the charming "Rheinlegendchen" all night.

Mr. Neubert has not lost the sweet freshness of his voice that we previously so admired.  His performance of Mahler's "Ich atmet einen Linden Duft" touched us deeply, especially when he floated the high note.  His voice has an expressive tenderness with which he conveys subtle nuances.  We loved the repetitive phrase "Irmelin Rose" in the Zemlinsky lied of the same name.

The collaborative pianist was Artistic Director of the German Forum Babette Hierholzer. We always appreciate a pianist who supports the singers without overwhelming them. The piano parts in the Post-Romantic period are quite different from those of the 19th c. and are often compelling in their own right.  We have remarked on this recently on the occasion of hearing lieder by Joseph Marx and noticed the same effect on all of the composers heard last night.

We would like to mention the fine work of the Lysander Piano Trio comprising Itamar Zorman violinist, Michael Katz cellist, and Liza Stepanova pianist.  We heard them in various combinations, as well as violist Edward Klorman who was so expressive in Marx's "Durch Einsamkeiten" along with Mr. Neubert.

Mr. Katz was eloquent in Zemlinsky's "Lied" and rhythmically on point in the rowdy "Tarantell".  Mr. Zorman impressed with his performance of Fritz Kreisler's "Liebesleid" accompanied by Ms. Stepanova; the waltz was performed with delicious rubato.  Ms. Hierholzer and Ms. Stepanova performed a few pieces from Arnold Schoenberg's youth--Six Pieces for piano 4 hand, of which our favorite was the third--quite melodic with an interesting texture.  Hearing it made us regret his so-called "advance" into atonality.

The Scherzo from Strauss' Piano Quartet in C minor op. 13 was given a spirited performance; the short motivic phrases bookended a lovely lyrical central section. Ms. Wimmer and Mr. Neubert closed the program with a duet from Bernstein's West Side Story.  Mr. Neubert bears no trace of accent in English but Ms. Wimmer sang with a very slight and very charming accent that served to affirm that Maria and Tony came from two different cultures.

As yet unaware that our favorite cabaret artist Kim Smith was one of the artists presented in the past by the German Forum, we hustled down to the far western reaches of Manhattan to the McKittrick Hotel for a late night set.  As an opera lover, we most enjoyed his very personal delivery of Kurt Weill's "Pirate Jenny" from the Three Penny Opera.  Marc Blitzstein penned the English lyrics.  Gershwin's "Summertime" from Porgy and Bess was given a unique performance as only Mr. Smith could devise.  He is always compelling to see and to hear.  We have enjoyed him more in a theatrical environment without all the rowdy drinkers one gets in a bar. He is an artist who deserves one's full attention.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, December 8, 2014


Yevgeny Yontov, Miki Sawada, Evanna Chiew, Nicole Percifield, and Brian Vu

It is always an occasion when artists from the Yale School of Music visit New York City; last night at Weill Recital Hall songs from the collection of Frederick R. Koch were presented by three experienced graduate level singers and two collaborative pianists.

We were delighted to have the opportunity to hear more of expressive baritone Brian Vu whom we have previously heard only briefly and reviewed at various competition award recitals.  His first set comprised songs by Henri Duparc in which he got to show off his impeccable French diction and succeeded in involving us emotionally.  After a somewhat boring set of songs which preceded we were roused by the emotionalism of one of our favorite French songs, the mysterious "Le Manoir de Rosemonde".  The nightmare desperation of "La vague et la cloche" was equally compelling.  Miki Sawada's piano successfully evoked the raging ocean and the dreamer's desperation.

In another set he performed Robert Schumann's "Herbstlied, Op. 89, No. 3" and two songs by Hugo Wolf in perfect German.  As pointed out previously, if you want to write a good song you need good poetry and Heine's "Wie des Mondes Abbild Zittert" and Goethe's "Beherzigung" fall into that category.  Mr. Vu's mellow baritone and emotional involvement served him well and brought the songs to vivid life.  We are of the opinion that a lieder singer must be first and foremost a good storyteller. Mr. Vu definitely measures up to that criterion.  Our only criticism is that Mr. Yontov's piano, so evocative in the quiet passages, became rather heavy handed in the more passionate passages.

New to us was mezzo-soprano Evanna Chiew who performed three songs by Jean Sibelius with plenty of poise and stage presence.  Her very pleasing mezzo has a fine soprano-y bloom on top while the lower register remains firm and nicely textured. We cannot evaluate her Swedish diction but it sounded quite lovely

In another set of songs by Mahler, we were most impressed by the settings of texts from Des Knaben Wunderhorn.  Given a fine performance, there aren't many songs that delight us as much and Ms. Chiew gave her all in her interpretation of "Ich ging mit Lust durch einen grünen Wald" and the humorous "Selbstgefühl". Her German diction was excellent.  We would welcome the opportunity to hear more of her.

We were somewhat less impressed by soprano Nicole Percifield who sang Debussy's Cinq Poèmes de Baudelaire.  A couple nights earlier we heard these same songs performed at Juilliard in an entire evening devoted to Baudelaire.  Consequently we had a pretty good idea of how intensely moving these songs can be when sung with total involvement.  But last night, unfortunately, they all sounded exactly the same and the blandness failed to engage us.

Ms. Percifield has a bright soprano with perhaps a shade too much vibrato but the fault lay more in a lack of involvement, a lack of gesture and a lack of involvement. Her French diction was excellent and she made use of dynamic variety but there was definitely something missing.  We had hoped to hear more of her later in the program to learn if perhaps that was just the wrong material for her but those five songs were all we got.  Perhaps we will have another opportunity in the future.

© meche kroop

Sunday, December 7, 2014


Gotham Chamber Opera's El Gato Con Botas (photo by Richard Termine)

What an enthralling hour we spent at El Museo del Barrio!  The many auditory and visual delights we experienced were the result of a collaboration among the always adventurous Gotham Chamber Opera, Works and Process at the Guggenheim, Blind
Summit Theater and Tectonic Theater Project.

This collaboration brought to vivid life a fairy tale dating back to the 16th c.  The hero is a member of the class known in nearly every culture as "helper animals", those who help humans to survive and thrive.  Puss in Boots is a rascal--he lies and cheats to get what he wants; but he is clever and resourceful and secures a princess bride and a castle for his poor master who, as third son of a miller, received no other inheritance.

The inventive Bunraku-style puppets were created by London's Blind Summit Theater (designed by Nick Barnes) and interacted with live performers and characters who were half human and half puppet as seen in the photo above.  They were supremely effective in telling the story (puppet direction by Mark Down and stage direction by Moisés Kaufman). Sets were designed by Andromache Chalfant and lit by David Lander. Costume design was by Clint Ramos.  Every element was as close to perfection as one could get.

Musical values were beyond wonderful.  Under the baton of Neal Goren the Gotham Chamber Opera Orchestra, comprising but a dozen musicians, realized Xavier Montsalvatge's music in the most delightful manner.  There was an outpouring of melody and most interesting textures in the harmonies.  Sung in Spanish, it is a work we would happily listen to even without the visual component. We heard great variety in mood and tempo throughout.  The music for the love letter sent by the miller to the princess excelled in sensuality.  Much of the other music was propulsive and energetic.  

Dressed in black and singing the role of Puss was the incomparable mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson whose work we have reviewed before.  Her expressive voice conveyed all the wily manipulations of Puss although the puppet was doing the cavorting.  Ms. Costa-Jackson is a gorgeous woman but unafraid to hide her beauty in the service of a role, as seen in Nixon in China and Fanciulla del West, both at The Metropolitan Opera.

Andrea Carroll made a winning princess and used her sensual soprano to good advantage.  Her interaction with her father the king (effective baritone Stefanos Koroneos) was quite amusing since the singer's face sat above a tiny body, as did the members of his court--chamberlain, friar and cook.

The role of the miller's son was finely sung and acted by baritone Craig Verm.  He went from the resentful inheritor of the mangy cat to the son-in-law of the king, all due to the deceitful antics of the cat.  Instead of skinning and eating the cat in the first scene, he was persuaded to provide a feathered cap, a cape, a sword and (of course) a pair of boots for the demanding feline.  That scene was pure delight.

The fiction used to win the princess' hand was that the poor miller's son was a Marquis.  The castle for this "Marquis" was taken away from an ogre in an hysterical scene in which Puss tricks the Ogre (sung convincingly by bass Kevin Burdette).  We were reminded of the scene in Wagner's Das Rheingold when Wotan and Loge descend to Nebelheim and trick Alberich into giving up the Tarnhelm.

Let us give due credit to the gifted black-clad puppeteers, led by Stefano Brancato; Jonothon Lyons and Aaron Schroeder manipulated Puss; Joseph Gallina, Ben Liebert, Marta Mozelle MacRostie, Jessica Scott and Teddy Yudain did the rest.  Not only was there the king's court but a colony of rabbits and the various body parts composing the ogre.  Everything was amazing.

Regular readers will recall how much we love the Spanish language and how much we love puppetry.  This work scored on both accounts.  There is no point protesting the brevity of the work; it was completely satisfying. There are several more performances until December 14th and we urge you to go and see how much fun opera can be.

© meche kroop

Friday, December 5, 2014


Brian Zeger, Austin Smith, Eric Jurenas, Miles Mykkanen, Virginie Verrez and Christine Price

As we have noted previously, the very best kind of recital nourishes the listener intellectually as well as artistically.   Last night's Juilliard Songfest presented the songs of Charles Baudelaire in such a manner that we were inspired to return to our copy of Fleur du Mal to reinforce the pleasure we experienced while listening to the music.

For us, the highlight of this presentation was hearing our favorite text "L'Invitation au voyage" in the familiar setting by Henri Duparc and later in a setting by Alexander Gretchaninov, a student of Rimsky-Korsakov.  The magnificent mezzo Virginie Verrez has the advantage of being a native speaker of French and her total comfort with the language enabled her to immerse herself totally into conveying the textual significance.  

Along with the gorgeous instrument she employs with such fine technique, she possesses the rare artistry to bring you into the core of the song as she experiences it. One could break down the components of this artistry but there are times when we prefer to just allow ourselves to feel the music and the sound of the words as they envelop us.  This was one of those times.  We wanted to feel the exoticism and the erotic languor.

Gretchaninov's setting was unfamiliar to us but the Romanticism was beautifully interpreted by soprano Christine Price whose voice has a pleasant ring and a fine vibrato.  While not a native French speaker, Ms. Price's French diction was quite fine. 

Ms. Verrez seems to have a particular affinity for Duparc and we thrilled to her delivery of "La vie Antérieure".  The vivid fantasy elements of the text were given astonishing word coloring and we entered a strange beautiful world.  Likewise in "Harmonie du soir" when her voice joined with Mr. Zeger's piano and took us on a journey of simile and metaphor.  The imagery of a "flower offering incense to the night" and "a violin trembling like a heart betrayed" were particularly striking.  (The phrases sound much better in French!)

Ms. Price was particularly touching in Debussy's setting of "La Mort des amants" which, in spite of the title, struck us as far more romantic than morbid.

Special honors go to tenor Miles Mykkanen who appeared in the second half of the program and sang Fauré's setting of "Hymne, Op. 7, No. 2" a song without any of the darkness so common in Baudelaire's poetry.  Mr. Mykkanen shares with Ms. Verrez that very special quality of using gesture and voice in a completely organic way that makes a song appear to be spontaneous, belying all the effort and technique necessary to reach that point.

But he outdid that stellar performance with "Le Jet d'eau" in which a fountain is compared with "a white bouquet whose flowers sway until the moon releases showers of bright tears" (translations by Richard Howard).  In this, Mr. Zeger's piano offered a shower of harp-like tones.  Mr. Zeger's collaboration with these young singers knows no equal.  He is artistic director of the Ellen and James Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts at Juilliard, among many other titles.  He seems to have perfect judgment in suiting the singer to the song.

Equally dazzling was their performance of Gretchaninov's setting of "Je t'adore" in which Mr. Zeger and Mr. Mykkanen united so perfectly that we were totally swept away.  This artistic partnership is the very reason for attending vocal recitals--when a voice and a piano can take you places you've never visited before.

Counter-tenor Eric Jurenas gave a fine performance of Debussy's setting of "Recueillement" in which the "Sun will die in its sleep beneath a bridge". Here, Mr. Zeger's piano laid down a thick carpet of Impressionistic sound for Mr. Jurenas. Sad to say but Mr. Jurenas' diction was not quite up to that of the others.  We caught a word here and there but never an entire sentence.

We have quoted some of the text to demonstrate the evocative nature that inspired such beautiful compositions.  How could one go wrong with imagery like that!  If you want to write a good song, you should choose good poetry!

More songs on the program included settings by Ernest Chausson, André Caplet, Daron Aric Hagen and Paul Hindemith--all fine songs but not as much to our taste as Fauré, Debussy, Duparc, and Gretchaninov.

We had only one quibble with the program.  Austin Smith was onstage reading the text in English translation.  Translations may give us the imagery of the text but not the innate musicality of the French language.  Furthermore, his reading lacked the dramatic impact we noted three months ago when Lucy Rowan narrated a Tennyson text at the Manhattan School of Music.

© meche kroop

Tuesday, December 2, 2014


Hyona Kim, Bretton Brown and Tami Petty

"The Bohemians" have been around for over a century fostering music in New York City.  Last night they collaborated with "Joy in Singing" to present a pair of stunning singers with a highly sensitive collaborative pianist at the keyboard.

It would seem that "Joy in Singing", only around for half as long as "The Bohemians", chooses singers of a certain type to award.  The two singers we heard last night, while having two very different voices, exhibited a commonality of quality that was impressive to say the least.  What they seem to go for is a style we much admire in lieder singing; we perceived an urge to communicate the meaning of the text with consummate expression but without fussiness.  Both singers employed tasteful gesture and facial expression to augment their story-telling skills.

At no time was vocal technique compromised.  Tones were rendered with purity and just the right amount of vibrato.  Diction was perfect with every word comprehensible; vowels were given full value without sacrificing the crispness of the consonants.  Variety was achieved by admirable dynamic control and appropriate coloration of the words.  Phrasing was always meaningful.

Soprano Tami Petty has a sizable instrument that is never unwieldy but always under perfect control.  There is a lovely lustre to it and an ear-tickling spin especially in her soaring upper register.  If ever a voice was made for Strauss, it is hers.

Mezzo-soprano Hyona Kim has a rich and chocolatey sound, one with weight and texture that never impairs her flexibility. Her long legato lines gave the German the feel of Italian without compromising her perfect diction.

The program included only two composer--Richard Strauss, about whom little needs to be said, and Joseph Marx, an Austrian born a generation after Strauss.  He wrote 150 songs in his youth, at the beginning of the 20th c., meaning that although junior to Strauss, he was composing earlier than many of Strauss' songs were composed. Sadly, few have been published or recorded.  This made their hearing even more precious.

The program sustained interest by creating a variety of moods.  Ms. Petty readily shifted gears from the rapturous "Du meines Herzens Krönelein" to the light-hearted enthusiasm of "All mein Gedanken" (texts by Dahn) to the ethereal "Schön sind, doch kalt die Himmelssterne" (text by Schack).  But the Strauss song we most enjoyed was "Schlechtes Wetter"(text by Heine) in which pianist Bretton Brown created quite a storm, surpassing the rain outside the window.  On the other hand, we absolutely loved what she did with the very funny "Für funfzehn Pfennige" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn, a biting argument between an importuning lover and a disdainful girl.

As far as humor goes, Ms. Kim gave a delightful rendering of "Hat gesagt--bleibts nicht dabei" from the same cycle.  Yet she could move us to tears with the sad "Befreit" about the release of death.  She impressed us equally with her delivery of the Marx songs.  In "Lieder" (text by Morgenstern), she painted lovely pictures of elements of nature, with ample help from Mr. Brown.  Mr. Brown's introduction to "Valse de Chopin" (text by Hartleben after Giraud) was glorious. The lovely "Japanisches Regenlied" delighted us as well.

Ms. Petty also got a crack at Marx's songs and our favorite was the rapturous "Und gestern hat er mich Rosen gebracht" (text by Lingen).   Ms. Petty's gift is that she brings the audience into her emotional experience, or rather the experience of the poet which she recreates for the listener.  We could smell the roses along with her and feel the rapture of being adored.  

Mr. Bretton was an equal partner in this outstanding recital.  Being less than familiar with Marx we were dazzled by his piano writing, especially in "Nocturne" (text by Hartleben) which so beautifully set the stage for Ms. Petty's singing, and likewise in "Die Liebste spricht" (text by Heyse).  Not that Strauss' piano writing was any less glorious.  The minor key arpeggii in "Befreit" were the perfect introduction for Ms. Kim's singing.

Both of these singers have been amply rewarded by the entities that grant such awards by competition; they seem destined for major careers and we feel privileged to have heard them in the intimate environment of the Kosciuszko Foundation.  Viva Joy.  Viva Singing.  Viva Joy in Singing!

© meche kroop