MISSION

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.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

TRANSATLANTIC OPERA


Danny Miller, Vasilisa Atanackovic, and Alison Miller


They call themselves TransAtlanticOpera and they made quite an impression last night at the National Opera Center, the end of their tour of Canada and The United States. They comprise a most unusual ensemble, of whom only three are pictured. The other two members are Brian Holman (the pianist with magic fingers) and the fine clarinetist Krishna Veerappan. They met in Sicily and formed an ensemble of interesting proportions and sonorities.

We are accustomed to hearing voice with piano or guitar accompaniment or with full orchestra so the novelty of the arrangements by violinist Danny Miller allowed us to hear familiar works with fresh ears.

Aside from arias performed by the engaging soprano Vasilisa Atanackovic, the four member ensemble performed instrumental versions of operatic highlights. When they played Mozart's "Porgi amor" from Nozze di Figaro, we could see the Countess and hear her voice in our head.

The "Meditation" from Massenet's Thais was absolutely gorgeous and featured Alison Miller's violin. "Casta diva" from Bellini's Norma featured Mr. Veerappan's clarinet. Similarly gorgeous was the "Intermezzo" from Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana. Mr. Holman's piano was exceptional in the "Intermezzo" from Puccini's Manon Lescaut.

But it was the singer we came to hear, so let us praise Ms. Atanackovic's bright and beautiful soprano and her passionate involvement in getting the arias across. Dvorak's shimmering score for Russalka lost little in translation (or rather arrangement) and Ms. Atanackovic melded beautifully with Mr. Holman's piano part. We loved the Bohemian harmonies and the way her voice swelled in the upper register.

Liu's plea "Tu che di gel" from Puccini's Turandot came across well and we loved the Rachmaninoff song "Polubila ya" (I have grown fond of sorrow).

We hate to harp on things that detract from an otherwise stellar performance but the dreaded music stand appeared, disappeared, and reappeared on several occasions.  It truly is a barrier between singer and audience. The singer makes contact and then that slender thread is broken every time she glances down and turns a page.

Actually, we were quite surprised that this happened with a singer so intensely intent on communicating--especially at the end of a tour!  In "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi (the opening piece) she lost us and we found ourselves shifting our attention to the unusual instrumental arrangement. Since Lauretta is pleading for something, it was particularly egregious to not focus on an imaginary Babbo in the audience.

Also on the program was the famous Neapolitan song "O sole mio" and the famous Spanish song "Besame mucho" performed with just the piano and marked by dynamic variety and rubato.  "Black Swan" from Menotti's The Medium (just reviewed a couple days ago) would have been so much better off the book!

There was a very emotional delivery of "Vissi d'arte" from Puccini's Tosca (an opera we are going to review in a couple days) but we have saved the best for last because this must be Ms. Atanovackovic's signature role--"Senza mamma" from Puccini's Suor Angelica. Everything was there and we could appreciate not only the wonderful instrument but the phrasing and, above all, the connection with the audience that allowed us to really feel the text. A major score!

We hope that when this excellent ensemble returns that the music stand will have been relegated to the ash heap!

(c) meche kroop

JOYCEEEEEEE



Yesterday we were privileged to sit in on Joyce DiDonato's Master Class at Juilliard. Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of the Vocal Arts Department, gave her the introduction merited by her artistry and accomplishments in the field and pointed out that she has been given an Honorary Doctorate at this esteemed institution. The class was live-streamed for a wider audience than could fit into Paul Hall.

If you are wondering about the title of this review, all those extra "E's" stand for Education, Enlightenment, Entertainment, Exhilaration, and Excitement--all of which marked the two hour class that we wished had lasted longer.

The participants were students pursuing advanced degrees in the Vocal Arts Department, all of whom showed evidence of superlative training. What Ms. DiDonato contributed was in the nature of fine tuning their artistry with intuitive observations and suggestions. She began by pointing out that the class was not a performance but a playground in which the singers could try out new things. It is the process that is important.

There were concepts that seemed to apply to one and all. First of all is the importance of analysis of the character. The singer must figure out why the character enters onstage and the reason the character makes his/her exit. Physical gestures reveal the underlying feeling. The singer must have his/her own point of view but be sufficiently flexible to make adjustments, according to the wishes of the director.  But never enter an audition or competition with the anticipation of what is expected.

Once the singer has learned the aria thoroughly, the singer must give attention to making choices and never allow the performance to become automatic. If there is a repeat, think about the reason for repeating.  Hear the harmony in the accompaniment but feel the rhythm.

Ms. DiDonato has a particular affection for recitativi. This is where the singer reveals his/her artistry. With the three women singers we heard, focus was mainly on the recit. Their collaborative pianist was the excellent and always supportive Chris Reynolds. All of them were transformed by their 25 minute session!

Mezzo-soprano Nicole Thomas worked on "Sein wir wieder gut" from Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos. The Composer is 18 years old and love has hit him like a coup de foudre. He is hormonal and emotionally extravagant. His volatility is expressed by the music being "off the beat". (This is not the same as Cherubino who is constantly in love.) The manic energy must be supported by clear diction to get over the dense orchestration. The "z" sound of "Sein" must be clear.

Soprano Tamara Banjesevic worked on "Eccomi in lieta vesta" from Bellini's I Capuleti  i Montecchi. From the beginning "Eccomi", the singer must project innocence and purity. She is looking at herself dressed for a wedding to a man she does not wish to marry.  The pain must also show but not self pity. Giulietta is seeing herself in a mirror.  If the singer sees it, the audience will see it.

Soprano Felicia Moore worked on Elettra's aria "Oh smania!"--or at least the recit part--from Mozart's Idomeneo. The singer must dig into the text.  It is important to emphasize the  "zm" sound of "smania". An accompanied recit is like a conversation between the singer and the orchestra. This involves intense listening for the underlying harmonies and key changes. Specifically, in this recit, there is a switch to the major mode and the singer must understand why and sell it to the audience. Slowing down gives the singer a chance to register the emotional journey.

Tenor Joshua Blue alone got to sing an aria, accompanied by Ji Yung Lee on the piano. If there is one tenor aria that is ridden with cliche, it is "Una furtiva lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore. Ms. DiDonato got rid of all the stuff by asking Mr. Blue to sing it to her, as if he were telling his best friend about his new discovery. This made a world of difference. It became sharing instead of "acting". 

He was also encouraged to imagine an unbroken thread of sound to produce the necessary legato. This resulted in a more Italianate sound without his pretending to be an "Italian tenor". The repeated phrases were given new meaning and new life.

A few minutes were saved at the end for a Q and A. The point that stuck in our mind was about career development--that tenacity comes from within, not from teachers or coaches. We are cognizant of the difficulties faced by young singers and have made observations that support Ms. DiDonato's comment. It is a journey and it is never helpful to compare oneself to others. Ms. DiDonato pointed out that her very own career got off to a slow start.  Each one is on a different journey. Live it!

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, October 15, 2017

TRISKAIDEKAPHILIA

Erik Bagger, Barbara Porto, Director Desiree Alejandro, Caroline Tye, and Maestro Whitney George

Don't feel bad if you didn't know the meaning of the title of New Camerata Opera's show--Triskaidekaphilia. We had to look it up ourselves; it means "obsession with the number thirteen". This was quite appropriate since the show opened on Friday the 13th. We regret to inform you that if you weren't there this weekend you missed one helluva show.

The stated mission of New Camerata Opera is "to engage, to excite, and educate through immersive performances that break down barriers and inspire the fans of the future". This goal was achieved 101%. The guest we invited was as new to opera as we are experienced and we both appreciated it equally. Just seeing a house packed with millennials brought joy to our heart. 

What we experienced surely represents the future of opera--an immersive experience, up front and personal, intensely involving, and ultimately satisfying. The enthusiasm of the audience gives proof of the accomplishment of the stated mission.

We have seen Gian Carlo Menotti's one-act opera The Medium several times but found enhanced emotional resonance in this staging by Director Desire Alejandro. We may as well have been one of Madame Flora's deluded clients, so involved were we with the onstage action.

Here's the story in case you don't know it. For years Madame Flora has run phony seances and taken money from believers desperate to contact their dearly departed loved ones.  To this purpose she has enlisted the services of her daughter Monica and a mute Hungarian gypsy boy named Toby whom she rescued from the streets.  While "under the influence" she begins to hallucinate the "ghosts" and blames Toby.  She becomes fearful and then hysterical with tragic results.  

We attributed her fear of ghosts to a combination of guilt and alcohol but our guest believed the story to be one of supernatural revenge in the face of her deceit, exploitation, and greed. A brief chat with Ms. Alejandro was valuable.  She pointed out that Madame Flora had probably survived all kinds of evils in her native Hungary, including the Holocaust. This would explain much about her survivor mentality. Leaving the audience in a state of puzzlement is also a feature of Britten's opera The Turn of the Screw.

As interpreted by mezzo-soprano Caroline Tye, she is a compelling figure--controlling, angry, and manipulative; Ms. Tye inhabited the role like a custom made garment. There was no attempt to create a "pretty" sound but rather to use her substantial instrument to illuminate these aspects of Madame Flora's character. It was a totally committed performance, exactly what was called for. When she unravels, her aria "Afraid, am I afraid" cut to the bone.

Her daughter Monica was beautifully embodied by soprano Barbara Porto. Where her mother was vicious and abusive to the mute Toby, Monica was loving and caring, giving voice to his thoughts. Her gleaming instrument and youthful stage presence were just perfect for the role. She had two fine arias--the well known "Monica's Waltz" and "The Black Swan".

At first we thought it was a waste to cast tenor Erik Bagger in a non-singing role but it gave us an opportunity to take measure of his acting skills. His Toby was a sympathetic character whose tragic end gave us herzschmerz. Fortunately, we got to hear him sing later.

Soprano Alexandra Lang was excellent in the role of Mrs. Gobineau, a client of Madame Flora who had suffered the loss of her infant son; she had visited the medium weekly for years just to hear her lost baby laugh, an effect provided by the hidden Monica. Baritone Scott Lindroth finely portrayed her husband. The new client, Mrs. Nolan, was well performed by mezzo-soprano Eva Parr. Her character was there to connect with her departed teenage daughter Doodley. All three singers conveyed the willing gullibility of bereft parents. We felt for them; and that's good acting and good singing.

Music Director and Conductor Whitney George distinguished herself on the podium with pianist Nora Bartosik creating an almost orchestral sound on her Kawai keyboard. Adding to the wealth of sound was percussionist Joe Tucker who excelled on the vibraphone. Violinist Adam von Housen bowed his violin with a fine tone that contributed to the whole. It is notable that Maestro George arranged much of the transcriptions and arrangements, and did a splendid job of it.

The same musicians were on board for the second half of the evening--a cabaret comprising a wide variety of works dealing with the macabre. The Medium was so satisfying that we could have left in a state of fulfillment, but then we might have missed some excellent performances.

Fortunately, Mr. Bagger returned for the second half, complete with blood-stained shirt, but this time in full possession of his voice. He delivered a fine version of Kurt Weill's "Youkali" and joined the ensemble for a work by Brahms that was new to us--"Wechsellied zum Tanze". All the singers in the cabaret appeared as ghouls in scary makeup by Shannon Mae Mulligan.

We heard Camille Saint-Saens' "Danse macabre" in two forms. The opening featured Mr. von Housen's violin and the closing was sung rapid-fire by Mr. Lindroth. Ms. Lang performed Poulenc's "Mon cadavre est doux comme un gant" and baritone Stan Lacy performed Debussy's "Beau soir". Both artists employed fine French diction.

Mezzo-soprano Julia Tang did a fine job with Britten's "Funeral Blues" and Ms. Parr came on strong in "Yo soy Maria" from Astor Piazzolla's tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires which we reviewed a few years ago. Tenor Victor Khodadad performed the chilling Schubert song "Die Erlkonig" with a woman in red portraying the fantasy figures in a masterstroke of visual design.

We would be remiss not to mention the visual elements contributed by The House of Yes, a most unusual and funky performance space in Bushwick. We have not seen the like of it in Manhattan. Aerialist Roxie Valdez performed on a trapeze and fabric rope. Singers climbed up the walls. Aisles and balconies were put to use. If we weren't so busy documenting the singing we might have had more to share with you.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, October 14, 2017

RUBY SHOES

Julius Drake and Ruby Hughes


Listening to the magic of last night's recital at Weill Recital Hall, we couldn't keep ourselves from thinking about Dorothy's magic shoes in The Wizard of Oz. In any case, there was a lot of magic onstage in a superlative recital given by two artists who compliment each other to an unusual degree. Mr. Drake has the soft hands that we favor, always supporting Ms. Hughes and never drowning her out, unlike some accompanists we have heard recently.

Ms. Hughes has a gracious stage presence and a lovely instrument with which to work. What impressed us immediately was her expressiveness and the attention paid to coloring each word. She opened the program with a trio of songs by Henry Purcell. They spoke to us from the 17th c. in a clearer voice than the Britten songs from the 20th c. that we heard later in the program.

"Music for a while" always beguiles us.  "O lead me to some peaceful gloom" was new to us but "Thrice happy lovers" was familiar from the masque The Faerie Queen which we so enjoyed this past summer (review archived) produced by the newborn Gramercy Opera. The British artist made every word clear and made every word count, without ignoring the overall phrasing.

Robert Schumann's Liederkreis, Op.39 was performed in its entirety and we were transported to the world of nature as seen through the eyes of the 19th c. poet Joseph von Eichendorff. When Schumann called him the perfect poet for lieder he was right on point. The text rhymes and scans beautifully and the images are evocative. (Actually, the same could be said for the texts employed by Purcell.)

With the typical style of 18th c. German Romanticism, Eichendorff used natural elements to refer to feeling tone. Forests can be lonely or threatening. Birds can symbolize freedom of expression and one's very soul. The sky can kiss the earth as a lover would.

The two artists excelled here. Ms. Hughes was riveting in "Waldesgesprach", illuminating the voices of the "man on the make" and that of the witch who retaliates with anger and severe punishment. Mr. Drake was remarkable in creating an air of quietude in the prelude to "Mondnacht" and the rustling of the treetops in "Schone Fremde".

In "Auf einer Burg", the piece closes on an unsettled and unresolved note. We are left puzzled about the weeping bride. Although we have heard this cycle countless times, we have never heard artists create this intense effect. We would have wished to linger awhile as the question hung in the air.

Our only quibble was with Ms. Hughes German. We understood it but were mildly disconcerted by some inconsistencies in the final "ch" and "g", as well as a tendency to ignore the umlaut in certain words. (We ourselves are hampered by not having diacritical marks on our keyboard but if a kind reader comes to our aid we will be grateful. Our writing program used to have a "hack" for this but no longer.)

We are happy to report that Ms. Hughes' French was merveilleux. Lately we have been hearing a great deal of Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis and never tire of it. Each singer has done well in conveying the adolescent innocence of "La flute de Pan", the eroticism of "La chevelure" and the pain of facing reality in "Le tombeau des naiades" when the lover has lost his desire. Ms. Hughes put her own spin on it--the feeling of loneliness when love dies--and we loved it. Debussy's complex piano score was no challenge for Mr. Drake.

We couldn't say we loved Ravel's Deux melodies hebraiques but we loved the way the singer sang them with gorgeous melismas. Perhaps the failure to connect with this work had much to do with Ms. Hughes being "on the book".

A Charm of Lullabies by Benjamin Britten also failed to charm us. This has more to do with our taste than the success of the composition or its performance.  "The Highland Balou" and "The Nurse's Song" have text that is doggerel, but we enjoyed them the most. Some of the others seemed as if they did not ask to be set. 

We managed to feel no affection for the world premiere of Huw Watkins' cycle Echo. We realize that it is a very big deal for a singer to have a work composed just for him/her but it is rare that we enjoy such events. The presence of the detested music stand interfered with any connection we might have felt. Just sayin'.

As encore we heard the Scottish folk song "O Waly Waly", otherwise known as "Water is Wide". It was sung with simplicity and restored our good feeling about this exceptional recital. We understand Ms. Hughes is devoted to female composers and hope she will consider adding some Clara Schumann to her next recital.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, October 12, 2017

CHINESE AMERICAN CULTURAL EXCHANGE THROUGH MUSIC

Bai Yang and Yuan Sha

Many years ago, long before we became devoted to opera, we had a passion for Chinese opera. We spent many evenings at the Chinese American Cultural Center on Sixth Avenue, enjoying every type—from the most classical to the most rustic. We loved the stories and the sound of Mandarin, a language with tones that sounds sung even when spoken. But we knew nothing of Chinese instrumental music.

Last night, acclaimed Chinese musician/educator/professor Yuan Sha presented an evening of traditional and modern music played upon the guzheng, accompanied by other instruments. The performance/lecture was arranged by the Bureau for External Relations of the Ministry of Culture of the People's Republic of China and presented by the China Arts and Entertainment Group. 

The program was entitled "Zheng and Poem--a Tour of Chinese Music Culture" and is touring around the country. The stated purpose of this lecture/performance was to advance appreciation of this art form and to demonstrate the shared values of Chinese and American people. Music surely transcends politics!

The guzheng is an instrument made of wood, over 5 feet long, and bearing 16-25 strings which are plucked and supported by moveable bridges; it is tuned to a pentatonic scale. It inspired similar instruments throughout Asia, the most notable being the Japanese koto. The closest Western instruments might be considered the zither and the harp. But it has a sound all its own and what a wonderful sound it is--both exotic and accessible. The artists we heard established an intense vibrato to the point of bending the tone. Tremolos are frequent as well as harp-like passionate runs. It would be an understatement to say that we were enthralled.

Each one of the selections had its own special character but all were marked by the consummate artistry of the musicians who, with typical Chinese modesty, were not identified for each piece but were shown biographically in the back of the program.

Playing the guzheng were Ms. Sha herself and two other wonderful artists, her students Bai Yang and Cen Jiawei. Accompaniment was provided by pianist Zhang Zhengchen, flutist Ai Hongbo,  and percussionist Wu Hao who contributed some complex rhythms. . Further contributions were made by three Juilliard students--violinist Sumire Hirotsuru, cellist Sebastian Stoger, and harpist Deanna Cirielli who played a splendid duet with Ms. Sha.

One piece, "Travel in the Desert", from the period of the Tang Dynasty, showed the influence of the Arab world when the Silk Road brought in foreign influences. Other pieces were based on love, longing, nostalgia, nature, sorrow, and patriotism.

Guzheng music fell out of favor for a time but was kept alive and passed down from one generation to the next, to be revived in 1949 when The People's Republic was established. At present it is showing the influence of contemporary Western music but, true to form, we prefer the classical!

We were delighted to learn that Juilliard is collaborating with Tian Jin Conservatory to establish a graduate school, scheduled to open in 2019.

We feel privileged to have experienced this valuable cross-cultural event!

(c) meche kroop
















Wednesday, October 11, 2017

TRIPLE THREAT

Scott Rednour and Xiaoming Tian at Elabash Recital Hall

It's been over two years since we reviewed Xiaoming Tian's Masters Degree Recital at Manhattan School of Music when we made some puns about the English meaning of his name.  We wound up inventing our own name for him...Triply Talented Tian. The reason was that he ended the recital singing a highly heartfelt song whilst accompanying himself on the piano. It was a colleague of his who told us that Mr. Tian composed the song himself!

Now that Mr. Tian is enrolled in the Ph.D./D.M.A. Program at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, perhaps he is no longer so gripped with modesty because he announced himself as the composer when he performed the same incredible feat last night as an encore to his excellent recital. Although the words were not printed in the program,  the artist supplied us with the text, 

It is a lovely text, filled with nostalgia and references to elements of nature. The sounds of sung Mandarin rose and fell with the music in perfect partnership and delighted the ear. Mandarin is a musical language to start with and lovely to listen to.The song "Don't Cast Away" began with delicacy but became vigorous at the climax. His piano writing is melodic and included some wonderful arpeggi.

One of the things we most admire about Mr. Tian (aside from his compositional and pianistic skills) is his musicality. The phrasing is always apt and his control of dynamics excellent. Added to this is a facility with languages.

It seems as if singers, for whom English is a second language, have better English diction than native English speakers. Since the Masters recital, Mr. Tian's English diction has improved to the point that every word of the Barber songs was clearly enunciated. English will never be our favorite language for singing but it was a pleasure to hear it so well sung.

His French is also excellent and we were very glad to hear his Ravel once more. We just wrote about Don Quichotte a Dulcinee a few days ago but last night's performance took us back to the earlier graduation recital and gave us an opportunity to measure his artistic growth. We would call this cycle his "signature".

He invested "Chanson romanesque" with sweetness, "Chanson epique" with devotional piety, and "Chanson a boire" (our favorite) with flights of extravagant melismatic singing.

He has equal skills with German, evincing a fine vibrato in the vowels with no cheating of the consonants. We were happy to hear our favorites--"Die Nacht", "Allerseelen", and "Zueignung" from Op. 10 of 1885 composed when Strauss was only 20 years old! (What's YOUR 20-year-old doing with his time?) From the 1894 Op. 27 we enjoyed "Morgen!" with it's lovely piano interlude and "Heimliche Aufforderung". These are Strauss' most romantic and passionate songs, of which we never tire.

Fortunately, Mr. Tian chose some of Rachmaninov's best songs, of which we prefer "Do Not Sing To Me My Beauty" because of its melancholy text and haunting vocal line.  "In the Silence of the Secret Night" is another winner and "Christ is Risen" recalled the despairing condition of the world today. Mr. Tian has a flair for Russian, as we recall when we heard him sing Eugene Onegin,

Rounding out the program were two lovely songs in Mandarin by Qing Zhu about the Yangtze River, one a personal revelation of longing and the other about an historical event. We suspect that the extensive program notes were a product of Mr. Tian's scholarship.

Mr. Tian studies with Robert White who was in the audience and whose pleasure seemed on par with our own.  Accompanist for the recital was Scott Rednour.

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

GETTIN' THE GROOVE ON WITH JUSTIN AUSTIN

Damien Sneed and Justin Austin at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall

We don't usually get teary-eyed at vocal recitals. That usually happens when we witness something visually exquisite like a double rainbow in the mountains around Santa Fe, or watching a hummingbird dipping its beak into the center of a flower. Those are natural phenomena; singing is all artifice. But sometimes the results of intense study and lengthy practice applied to a natural gift can make this artifice seem as natural as the rainbow or the hummingbird.

So it was that last night at Weill Recital Hall of Carnegie Hall we found ourself incredibly moved by an outstanding recital performed by baritone Justin Austin, whose growth we have witnessed as he studied his way through Manhattan School of Music, guided by the glorious soprano Catherine Malfitano, who recognized and fostered his artistic evolution.

The recital came about as a consequence of Mr. Austin's winning the 2016 First Place Scholarship awarded by The National Association of Negro Musicians. The association has been around for nearly a century, explaining the outdated name. It is strange to think of Mr. Austin as a "negro musician" because we have only thought of him as a preternaturally gifted singer, no discriminatory labeling necessary.  But we understand that, to a group that feels marginalized, his labeling means something different. Some day the marginalization will be a thing of the past, or so we hope.

Mr. Austin strode confidently onto the stage in sartorial splendor and his collaborative pianist Damien Sneed sported a mohawk. This was, of course, just window dressing since we came for the sound, not the picture.  And what a sound! Mr. Austin's baritone is a caressing one with a fine vibrato that makes one think of velvet. Although he is young, just 27 years old, his sound is a mature one.

As one might predict, our favorite part of the program was the first set which he began with an aria from Cavalli's 1645 opera Doriclea --"Chi non s'accenderebbe". If we are not mistaken, Mr. Austin sang in this opera three years ago at MSM. What we appreciated, aside from the beautiful tone and Italianate phrasing, was the emotive content.

His singing goes straight to the heart, not only in Italian but also in German.  Hearing him sing straight through the consonants without cheating them was an aural pleasure. Schubert's "Die Krahe" from his cycle Winterreise was so fine that we want to hear Mr. Austin perform the entire cycle. 

The simplicity with which he performed Brahms' "Die Mainacht" was exactly what Brahms had in mind when he set the simple folksong with such artistry.  (Or so we would like to believe.)

Hugo Wolf's song "Herr, was tragt der Boden hier" is a different kind of song--complex and intense, with the drama heightened by Mr. Austin's skills in dynamic variety.

The remainder of the program was in English and we didn't expect to like it as much as we did. How rare to find a singer who can make every word intelligible! Often we have trouble concentrating on songs in English, getting distracted by wondering what that last phrase was about.  Not here! Not only was each word clear but the phrasing always made sense.

One set paid tribute to the disenfranchised.  Margaret Bonds' song "Minstrel Man" reminded us of the Eichendorff text "Ich kann wohl manchmal singen" which was set by several composers in the 19th c. The poet hides his grief behind a joyful exterior.

William Bolcom's "Ballad of the Landlord" resonated particularly with the audience. In Ricky Ian Gordon's "Luck", Mr. Austin spun out the final note in a long silken thread.

Mr. Sneed is also a composer and arranger and we enjoyed the world premiere of his song "I Dream a World" with its heart touching sentiment. He gave Mr. Austin a wonderful melismatic passage and some interesting effects heard in Early Music, and gave himself some rolling arpeggi and chromatic scale passages. We were thrilled to hear contemporary music that pleased the ear!

The second half of the program was equally enjoyable with a riveting performance of "Billy's Soliloquy" from Richard Rodgers' Carousel.  Perhaps you won't agree with us but we consider this an opera! The singer fantasizes the relationship he will have with his unborn son and then considers that the child could be a girl. Mr. Austin's alteration in color and tone aptly suited the material. And we liked the way he used the entire stage.

A very different soliloquy was then performed, the very bitter justice-demanding soliloquy sung by Coalhouse Walker in Stephen Flaherty's Ragtime, a Broadway musical that we also think of as an opera. Mr. Austin got the despair and anger just right.

"Lost in the Stars" from the Kurt Weill opera of the same name was similarly well rendered.

Another one of Mr. Sneed's compositions "Oh Freedom" (also a world premiere) opened with Mr. Austin kneeling next to the American flag. For about ten seconds we were puzzled, but then noticed that Mr. Sneed was kneeling at the piano and realized that they were referencing the current brouhaha in which ball players rebelled and refused to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance. The song began with a solo of beautiful vocal line and had the tone of a "Spiritual".  Very fine!

The program ended with Mr. Sneed's arrangement of two classics--Wynton Marsalis' version of the Lord's Prayer (another world premiere) and his arrangement of M. Hayes' (Amazing) "Grace".

We have never witnessed such a wildly enthusiastic and uninhibited audience reaction to a recital. The audience rose to its feet as one and several people literally jumped up and down. It was clear that people felt the material reflected their culture and concerns.  An encore was demanded but we did not recognize it much beyond the fact that it was a "Spiritual".

We entered expecting to hear Mr. Austin's consummate artistry but we got so much more than we expected.  We discovered a composer who knows how to write and we felt a part of a people's quest for equality and respect.  Good music can do that!

The recital was concomitant with Mr. Austin's birthday. But we felt as if he gave us a magnificent gift!

(c) meche kroop


LATINS IN NEW YORK

Sebastian Giunta, Candace Chien, Anna Tonna, Mary Thorne, and Mario Arevalo

We support any expansion of the presence of Latin Music in New York and applaud the enthusiasm of the group of artists who added to the celebration of Hispanic Day in New York City yesterday.

Shetler Studios hosted the event Latins in New York which presented art songs by Hispanic Composers from 1945 to the present. Tenor Mario Arevalo, who is new to us, welcomed the sizable audience and invited us to share his delight in Latin Music.

Mr. Arevalo has a beautiful instrument, an effortless tone, and a warm Latin sound that helps to put a song across. His opening offering was the charming "Damisela encantadora" by Cuban composer Ernesto Lecuona that was unfortunately marred by the use of the loathed music stand. Readers know how strongly we feel about its impairment of connection with the audience.

Fortunately, one of the artists went to the effort of memorizing his material and it just so happened to be the magnificent baritone Steven LaBrie whom we just reviewed two days ago for his sensational performance with the Brooklyn Art Song Society. We are happy to report that his artistry is no less wonderful in Spanish than it was in the French melodie.

We know not whether he chose the songs he would sing but the choices were the best on the program.  Or maybe it's just Mr. LaBrie's artistry that we loved.  His performance of Mexican composer Maria Grever's early 20th c. songs blurred the boundary between so-called popular song and art song. "Alma mia" revealed the depth of his feelings through a full rich tone.

Further, there was a convincing performance of Grever's "Munequita linda" in which the delicacy of collaborative pianist Candace Chien matched his own.  We swoon over these gorgeous diminuendos every time! The pair was equally fine in the sad song of farewell "Despedida", and the intense expansiveness of Grever's "Jurame".

From the same generation of Mexican composers, Manuel Ponce composed "Estrellita" which also delighted our ear. Significantly, our guest, who speaks no Spanish and has never attended a vocal recital, was overcome by the sound of Mr. LaBrie's voice and the intensity of his dramatic presentation. These songs were the highlight of the afternoon recital.

Our guest also volunteered his dismay over the incomprehensibility of the English text in Cuban composer Jorge Martin's cycle A Cuban in Vermont: Five Simple Songs, a 2003 composition that was receiving its New York City premiere.  Pianist Sebastian Giunta pounded out the jazzy rhythms at top volume drowning out the voice of soprano Mary Thorne whom we have heard before with Amore Opera and whom we hope to hear again-- singing different repertoire.

There was also a world premiere on the program-- two selections from El Salvadoran composer Juan Guerra Gonzalez' Mis Once Letras. The works required much explanation in the program but, in our opinion, good art reaches its audience without commentary. These songs did not reach us although Mr. Arevalo put his all into getting them across. Of the two selections we preferred "Mucho mas que amor" to which Mr. Arevalo's warm romantic sound was particularly suited. But the presence of the music stand was an obstacle to our feeling involved.

Argentinian composer Alberto Ginastera was represented by a trio of songs from his cycle Cinco canciones populares in which we noted Mr. Arevalo's skillful vocalise introduction to "Triste"and Mr. Giunta's lively rhythms in "Gato". We'd love to hear the entire cycle "off the book".

Similarly, the lovely tones of Anna Tonna's warm mezzo-soprano were put to good use in selections from Cuban composer Julian Orbon's Libro de Cantares. We liked the lullaby "Anada", the lively "Giraldilla", and the deeply felt "Cancion". Someday we hope to hear the songs "off the book" to fully appreciate them without distraction. 

Ms. Chien's piano was particularly lovely in the "Preludio". 

Ms. Tonna's performance of Colombian composer Jaime Leon's "A ti" was ardent and heartfelt whilst "La hija del viejo Pancho" was full of life and seemed to connect more with the audience.

We hope that the next concert given by this group will be given without music stands and perhaps with printed text for audience members who don't speak Spanish.

(c) meche kroop




Saturday, October 7, 2017

VIVA LA FRANCE

Michael Brofman, Kristina Bachrach, Miori Sugiyama, Steven LaBrie, Brent Funderburk, Chris Gross, Jill Sokol, Samantha Malk, and Jesse Blumberg

For their eighth season, Brooklyn Art Song Society is presenting La France, a series of recitals of French art song, a thorough exploration of France's contribution to this compelling art form--a happy marriage of text and music--a condition in which the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Last night's well chosen program focused on the music of two titans of this art form, Claude Debussy and Maurice Ravel. The latter was born in 1875, fifteen years after the former and thus his music belongs squarely in the 20th c.

Founder and Artistic Director Michael Brofman not only performs on the piano but wrote the extensive and informative program notes which taught us things we didn't know.  For example, we have heard Ravel's cycle Don Quichotte a Dulcinee many times and Jacques Ibert's cycle Chansons de Don Quichotte only twice without knowing the full story. 

Here it is, courtesy of Mr. Brofman. Film director G.W. Pabst commissioned the cycle for a film he was directing and Ravel's ailing health prevented him from completing the commission; it was then given to Ibert. The three songs Ravel finished were published as a cycle. We are glad to have both!

He also explained why both Debussy and Ravel decried the use of the term Impressionism to describe their music. Their precise compositional style is anything but vague and perceptual but rather deep and descriptive. Beware the tendency to categorize!

For last night's exploration of Ravel and Debussy, Mr. Brofman assembled a stellar group of singers, all of whom are familiar to us and cherished for their contributions to vocal performance. The French was impeccable all around and the Gallic style was consistently captured.

The first half of the program was devoted to the melodies of Debussy. His cycle Chansons de Bilitis belongs to our all time favorites and was finely realized by mezzo-soprano Samantha Malk, whose consummate artistry made the subtleties of interpretation seem natural. 

We remember well the first time we realized that the three songs represent stages of a woman's life and that the singer must evolve from the innocence of girlhood through the sensual passion of young adulthood and on to the disillusionment that comes through the destruction of a shared dream.

This was achieved by Ms. Malk in a way that seemed effortless, with shifts from delicacy to the expansion of tone during the heights of passion. Miori Suiyama's pianism shifted right along with her in perfect partnership. Did we mention that Ms. Malk has a gorgeous instrument with which to accomplish this?

Accompanied by the wonderful Brent Funderburk on the piano, baritone Steven LaBrie entertained us next with the cycle Fetes galantes. The program notes list Mr. LaBrie as a lyric baritone but we heard a lot more going on in terms of texture and resonance. Undoubtedly his voice has grown since we first heard him several years ago and our companion thought he was headed toward bass-baritone. Whatever you call it, we found it mature and rich.

We particularly enjoyed the skillful variety of dynamics in "Clair de lune" in which Mr. Funderburk's piano limned moonlight, splashing fountains, and birdsong. In the first melodie "En sourdine", there was an unmistakeable nightingale in the postlude.

To soprano Kristina Bachrach fell the responsibility of bringing out all the melancholy of the cycle Ariettes oubliees, featuring the poetry of Paul Verlaine (also featured in Fetes galantes). These are mood pieces with "C'est l'extase langoureuse" evoking feelings of sensuality and languor.  Gallic melancolie permeated "L'ombre des arbres" and "Spleen" evoked desperation and vaguely unsettled feelings.

It takes a true artist like Ms. Bachrach to do justice to this cycle with its many shades of grey. Only the central song "Chevaux de bois" is filled with energy. The gayness is deceptive and seems to be masking deep seated feelings of the futility of life. Mr. Brofman's piano was particularly evocative there as the wooden horses turned round and round and, in "Il pleure dans mon coeur", as his fingers made the drops of rain fall.

The second half of the program was devoted to the works of Ravel and we were completely thrilled by baritone Jesse Blumberg's storytelling in the cycle Histoires naturelles, settings of text by Jules Renard. In this cycle, creatures are anthropomorphized for our delight and amusement. The texts are perceptive and indicates the poet's response to each critter.

Along with a true lyric baritone that falls beautifully on the ear, Mr. Blumberg is the possessor of considerable dramatic skills, preening like the peacock of "Le paon", gliding smoothly over the surface of the water like "Le cygne", and tormenting other fowl with defensive intent in "La pintade". 

Who has not had a special feeling of privilege when a wild creature comes close! The fisherman in "Le martin-pecheur" has just had that special moment and Mr. Blumberg and Mr. Brofman at the piano shared that moment with the audience.

Ms. Malk returned for the cycle Chansons madecasses which is rarely performed because of the unusual instrumentation necessary to create the exotic environment of Madagascar. Jill Sokol contributed to the multiple sonorities with flute and piccolo with Chris Gross' cello filling in with its own sensuality. Ms. Sugiyama has the softest hands and plays with delightful delicacy.

The multiple sonorities blended into a sea of sensuality in "Nahandove". "Aoua" is a painful anti-colonial rant and "Il est doux" describes a man lying about wanting entertainment and food from the women.  The melody was haunting.

The final cycle was the aforementioned Don Quichotte a Dulcinee performed by Mr. LaBrie and Mr. Funderburk. The range was a perfect fit for Mr. LaBrie's voice and he sang with deep commitment to the music and the text. "Chanson romanesque" is romantically worshipful whilst "Chanson epique" is spiritually devotional.

The final song "Chanson a boire'" is usually performed by the baritone pretending to be inebriated and staggering around the stage. Mr. LaBrie's take on it was more a celebration of joy and we liked that spin a great deal.

There will be four more concerts this season at the welcoming Brooklyn Historical Society which is easily reached by multiple subway lines. There will also be a bonus concert on December 1st at the Old Stone House, a charming venue.

B.A.S.S. keeps ticket prices low so that everyone can enjoy these recitals, which are always well planned and equally well executed. Those who come at 7:00 can avail themselves of lectures by experts in the field. One always sees a packed house!

(c) meche kroop


Friday, October 6, 2017

GOLDEN PALM



Joshua Conyers, Kasia Borowiec, Kelsey Robertson, Derrek Stark, and Timothy Cheung

The Palme d'Or is a French award given in the film industry.  But we would like to offer a Golden Palm to Palm Beach Opera for their impressive success in fostering the growth of young singers. More on that later but let's begin with the four splendid singers who graced the stage of Scorca Hall last night at the National Opera Center.

In a very brief hour that seemed to fly by, we got a very good picture of the wide ranging gifts of these four artist who came to represent Palm Beach Opera, founded in 1961. Three of the artists were known to us and one was a wonderful discovery. 

We first heard soprano Kasia Borowiec four years ago in Virgil Thomson's The Mother of Us All at Manhattan School of Music. The following year we heard her Giulietta in Bellini's I Capuleti e i Montecchi. In the summer of 2016 at Santa Fe Opera we loved her Tatiana and we guess SFO loved her equally because they cast her in the title role of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel!

Last night we heard even more of her. Her rich lyric soprano was employed effectively in "Porgi amor" from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro which she performed with a touching combination of dignity and despair.  In "Das war sehr gut, Mandryka" from Richard Strauss' Arabella, we were dazzled by the soaring expansion of her upper register.

In the duet "Prendero quel brunettino" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte, we noticed that she does very well as a scene partner, abandoning her modest self-presentation to relate warmly and appropriately with mezzo-soprano Kelsey Robertson who portrayed Dorabella to Ms. Borowiec's Fiordiligi.

Similarly she responded with touching innocence to the Pinkerton of tenor Derek Stark in "Vogliatemi bene" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. The multipotentiality of her artistry will be great fun to watch as it evolves.

We heard the terrific tenor Derrek Stark two years in a row in Santa Fe as part of the Apprentice Artists Program.  In 2015 he was a delightful David in Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg, and the following year we enjoyed his Edgardo in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Last night we could appreciate how his voice has grown in his stirring performance of "E lucevan le stelle" from Puccini's Tosca which he imbued with deep emotion and dynamic variety. He seems to be headed in a Puccini direction, performing the role of Pinkerton (with Ms. Borowiec) with appropriate arrogance, clearly showing that her worshipful adoration was met with his lust.

In "O Mimi, tu piu non torni" from Puccini's La Boheme, his Rodolfo was well matched by baritone Joshua Conyers, as the two men lament their lost loves in gorgeous harmony. 

We also remember Mr. Conyers from his performances in the Apprentice Program of Santa Fe Opera where we heard him in 2013 and 2014 singing Berlioz, Handel, and Puccini. He has a sizable voice of power and dimension which made him a compelling Tonio, delivering the prologue to Leoncavallo's Pagliacci--"Si puo", successfully drawing the audience into the brutal drama to follow.

His powerful baritone was just right for "O Tixo, Tixo, help me" from Kurt Weill's Lost in the Stars, an eloquent depiction of moral crisis as the priest tries to decide whether to counsel his son to lie and save his life or tell the truth and hang. A tragic tale well told! And Mr. Conyers' English diction was so fine that we understood every word. And that's never to be taken for granted.

New to us was mezzo-soprano Kelsey Robertson who made an excellent impression and left us wanting more. She has a graceful and winning stage presence, a lovely mezzo texture to her instrument, and fine skills with fioritura. 

The material she chose was perfect to highlight her special skills. We do love our Rossini and hardly ever get to hear his Tancredi. Ms. Robertson's performance of "Di tanti palpiti" evinced precision in the ornamentation and skips. No carelessness there!

Similarly "Dopo notte" from Handel's Ariodante was performed in apt baroque style and emotional expression achieved not just in the voice but in facial expression and bodily gesture. These same skills were brought to bear on the Cosi duet which was completely charming, especially at the end with both she and Ms. Borowiec jumping for joy as they considered flirting with the two "new" men. This is an artist we cannot wait to hear again.

The capstone of the program was the final quartet from Verdi's Rigoletto, performed with dramatic commitment and gorgeous vocal blending. Ms. Borowiec's Gilda was appropriately shocked and dismayed, Mr. Conyers' Rigoletto was partly sympathetic and partly confrontational, Ms. Robertson's Maddalena was cynical but half won over, and Mr. Stark's Duke was even more lustful than his Pinkerton. (Is there a theme here?)

Accompanist for the evening was pianist Timothy Cheung.

The audience was welcomed by Laura Lee Everett, Director of Artistic Services at Opera America. The Emerging Artist Recitals reflect the joint efforts of Opera America and its member companies to identify and nurture the careers of the most promising young artists. These recitals are live streamed to a growing international audience so that these young artists are exposed to producers and casting professionals. What a win-win situation!

Palm Beach Opera is one of the member companies participating in this excellent program. They have an Apprentice Artist Program which offers a 5-month residency to recent graduates who aim to gain experience at the professional level and also receive regular coaching and onstage experience.

They also have The Benenson Young Artist Program for post-graduate and emerging singers--also a 5-month residency in which they get performance opportunities and guidance from the artistic staff of the company. The four singers we heard tonight belong to a group of 18.

Furthermore they offer community outreach and educational opportunities. We award Palm Beach Opera a Golden Palm!

(c) meche kroop

Joshua Conyers, Kasia Borowiec, Kelsey Robertson, Derrek Stark, and Timothy Cheung at the National Opera Center (photo by Frank Ammaccapane, Natural Expressions NY Photography)

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

afterWARds

Maestro David Moody, Kirsten Scott, Renate Rohlfing, Boya Wei, Marco Cammarota, and Katherine Whyte

We believe a work of art should speak for itself and require no explanation from the playwright, painter, director, choreographer, or composer.  However, in the case of Bare Opera's reduction/expansion/ psychological illumination/distillation of Mozart's 1780 opera seria Idomeneo, we would like to quote Director David Paul, whose eloquence we could not equal.

"afterWARds is an opera about the emotional battles that continue to rage after war is long over.  It's an opera about displaced refugees, and the lingering post-traumatic effects of war. But most of all, it's an opera about love, healing, and the resilience of the human spirit."

Until last night, we had sat through this opera several times--three plus hours of gorgeous writing for massive choruses, elaborate late 18th c. costuming, gods and monsters and shipwrecks--without ever being emotionally moved. What Mr. Paul has done is to strip away everything except the four main characters, to focus on their psychological struggles. The music by Mozart and libretto by Giambattista Varesco remained intact. Like us, the characters struggle to find love and peace in a world gone mad with the carnage of war.

War is often waged for the most trivial of reasons. King Menelaus of Greece wanted his wife back after Paris, Prince of Troy, "abducted" her (we know not whether or not she went willingly). Menelaus enlisted the services of his brother Agamemnon and Agamemnon enlisted his ally Idomeneo, King of Crete. We all know how Agamemnon and his family fared--badly! And his daughter Electra appears in this opera enduring her own grief--unrequited love for Prince Idamante, Idomeneo's son.

During the Prologue we were treated to the piano reduction performed by Renate Rohlfing whilst films of war and shipwrecks were projected (Projection Design by Caite Hevner) along with a narrative of the backstory. Princess Ilia of Troy (King Priam's daughter and Paris' sister, now one of the spoils of war) was rescued from drowning by none other than Prince Idamante.

Poor Ilia is torn between her growing love for Idamante and her hatred for the Greeks who slew her entire family. How can love invade the territory of revenge? Soprano Boya Wei used her elegant instrument well in conveying the emotional ambivalence which tormented her. She eventually finds peace in accepting her enemy as a substitute father.

The role of Idamante was performed by mezzo-soprano Kirsten Scott in travesti ; this character has a different kind of emotional roller coaster to ride and she rode it so intensely that we had goosebumps.  Her character is secretly in love with Ilia but is dealing with a far larger issue. The father he loves whom he hasn't seen in some years had sworn to sacrifice him and, to protect his son from this fate, tries to send him away with a ruse of escorting Elettra back to Argos.

Elettra, powerfully sung by soprano Katherine Whyte, is living in despair due to the loss of her family (recall that her brother Orestes murdered their faithless mother who was betraying her husband Agamemnon with his brother Aegisthus) and also due to her unrequited longing for Idamante and jealousy of Ilia.

Her rage aria is chilling, with wild flights of coloratura, but she also has moments of tenderness and beauty when she begs Idamante for his love.  And that's her roller coaster.

In the title role we heard tenor Marco Cammarota who sang with a rich full tone and successfully conveyed the despair a father must feel in denying his own son and the horror of perceiving the need to sacrifice this dear son. Mr. Cammarota evinced great skill in his dynamics. He returns home with joy, but also guilt over all the deaths caused by the war.

The ending was a bit different than that to which we are accustomed but it worked. A peaceful resolution is found with Idamante and Ilia taking over the throne of Crete.  Poor Elettra is left with her demons but that's another opera, written by Richard Strauss.  

Come to think of it Mozart's masterpiece has been tinkered with before, and by that very composer! In 1931, whilst Munich commissioned Ermanno Wolf-Ferarri to revise the opera, the Vienna State Opera commissioned Richard Strauss who did a complete revision, employing a German libretto. We have heard neither revision.

We were pleased with the vocal performances overall but found several moments that were outstanding. The Act III quartet did full justice to Mozart's artistry with voices perfectly balanced. The love duet between Ilia and Idamante allowed the voices of Ms. Wei and Ms. Scott to melt together. Ms. Whyte's expression of rage was stunning as was her despair at the end in "D'Oreste, d'Ajace ho in seno i tormenti".  No happy ending for her!

"Vedrommi intorno" was given a stirring performance by Mr. Cammarota with the aforementioned attention to dynamics and a beautiful resonance.

It was particularly rewarding to witness the artistic development of Ms. Wei and Ms. Scott whom we began reviewing about five years ago when they were students at Mannes. Ms. Scott has appeared frequently in our reviews but the only time we saw the two together was in Nozze di Figaro, in which Ms. Wei sang the role of Susanna and Ms. Scott performed the role of Cherubino.

Once more, Bare Opera has succeeded in their mission to provide an intimate experience of opera-- minus the pomp and circumstance--that is very 21st c., filling an important niche on Planet Opera. There are many dwellings on Planet Opera and there is room for all, from the palatial mansion of the Metropolitan Opera to the intimate dwellings of flexible companies like Bare Opera.  We are all smiles thinking of the nomads of Central Asia who pull up their yurts and move on. Bare Opera is on the move.  We have reviewed every one of their events and have no intention of missing the next.

More on that later but it has something to do with a barber turned personal valet.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, October 2, 2017

STRANGELY BEAUTIFUL! BEAUTIFULLY STRANGE!

Alash Ensemble at Merkin Hall

It can be rewarding to step outside of one's comfort zone in the interest of broadening one's taste horizons. For this reason we found ourselves at Merkin Hall last night for our first exposure to Tuvan throat singing. The adventure was a success.

We had never even heard of Tuva before but the pleasure of listening to such unique music led to some online investigation. Tuva is a Republic in southern Siberia with ties to the Soviet Union and its population speaks a Turkic language.  It is evident from their music that they have a unique culture which seems worth preserving in a time when so many cultures are becoming Americanized, or Europeanized.

The people of Tuva are nomads and live in yurts.  Their folkloric music refers mainly to natural elements--rivers, mountains, and horses. The percussionist used wooden blocks to recreate the unmistakeable sound of hoofbeats. We weren't sure about the sound of reindeer herding.

The instruments are exotic.  One resembles a Chinese er-hu with it's two strings, which are bowed, but the register is much lower.  Another resembles a balalaika with three strings. There was a wooden flute which was played vertically and placed at the side of the player's mouth. Also making its presence felt was a Russian accordion and a Western guitar. There seems to be an intent to join Tuvan music with some Western influences.

What makes this music so special are the vocal effects. One does not ask a magician how he creates certain illusions, nor can one ask these incredible musicians how they create such strange and beautiful sounds. They are reported to be two pitches but, to our ears, it sounded more like overtones. Often we could not determine which of the three men was producing which sound. One musician produced a sound at such a low register that even Sparafucile would have been daunted.

One of the songs with hoofbeats ended with an unmistakeable "whinny". Another cascade of unusual sounds was only heard in one song in which a tiny nearly invisible reed of some kind was placed in the musician's mouth and twanged while he was vocalizing.

What struck us in terms of the vocalism is that in opera the mouth is open and the throat relaxed. In Tuvan throat singing, the mouth is often nearly closed and there is a great deal going on in the throat.

The end result of all that twanging, plucking, bowing, and beating left us feeling very happy to have been exposed to such an exotic culture. The concert was presented by the World Music Institute which has many similarly compelling concerts to offer this season, which they have been doing for over three decades.

(c) meche kroop



Sunday, October 1, 2017

SWEET TO THE TONGUE AND SWEET TO THE EAR

Kyle Pfortmiller, Maestro Keith Chambers, Ira Siff, Aaron Blake, Olivia Vote, and Sandra Lopez


The tantalizing buffet of homemade sweets and the free-flowing champagne might have distracted us from the thrilling entertainment provided by New Amsterdam Opera at their Sweet Surprise Salon.  Indeed sugar is sweet but music is even sweeter and more nourishing to the spirit.

The salon inaugurated NAO's second season; if you, dear readers, read our reviews from the first season you may recall our enthusiasm for their fine Fidelio, their equally fine Forza del Destino, and a compelling gala concert--all performed with impressive professionalism and fine casting decisions.

Artistic Director Maestro Keith Chambers hand picked the quartet of singers for last night's salon and the excellent program which comprised not a single dud.  There were three acts of four selections each with an opportunity to socialize before, after, and inbetween. Many luminaries of Planet Opera were in attendance and we were so happy to learn that Maestro Eve Queler of Opera Orchestra of New York has generously donated all her orchestral scores, giving NAO just the impetus they need to present more operas that deserve to be heard but are not regularly performed.

The evening was hosted by the inimitable Ira Siff--singer/educator/raconteur/writer/radio personality. We know Mr. Siff for a longer period of time than any other singer. One of his youthful performances was responsible for our love of singing. His witty introductions had the audience in stitches.  He began rather straight-faced talking about the need for "budget operas" in today's economic climate but then rattled off a list that seemed to come right out of the late and lamented Gran Scena Opera Company, of which he was the star.  Who remembers Madame Vera???

We always love duets, especially when the voices are well balanced.  Opening the program were soprano Sandra Lopez and mezzo-soprano Olivia Vote (whom we enjoyed so much at Santa Fe Opera) singing "Belle nuit" from Jacques Offenbach's magnificent work Les contes d'Hoffman. Ms. Lopez' instrument is bright and beautiful with Ms. Vote's terrifically textured voice complementing hers to great effect. French diction was just about perfect.

If there is a more gorgeous duet for male voices than "Au fond du temple saint" from Georges Bizet's Les pecheurs de perles, we have yet to hear it. Tenor Aaron Blake joined forces with baritone Kyle Pfortmiller in this male bonding piece; both artists had an opportunity to show their dramatic chops in this emotional roller coaster. Like the two female artists, their French was impeccable.

As far as language is concerned, Mr. Pfortmiller distinguished himself with his superlative German in "Mein sehnen, mein Wahnen" from Erich Wolfgang Korngold's Die tote Stadt. This song of longing and nostalgia ends with the word "zuruck" (apologies for not having diacritical marks available) and Mr. Pfortmiller drew out the final "u" (the one with the umlaut) in an attenuated decrescendo that brought out the sentiment in a way that we have never heard before.

Readers may recall how fond we are of zarzuela and can imagine how delighted we were to hear "Maria la O" from the the 1930's work by Cuban Ernesto Lecuona. We just reviewed the same aria last week and are of the opinion that New York is ready for more zarzuela. Ms. Lopez gave it a fine performance, filled with sazon. To our ears, Spanish sings as well as Italian and caresses the ear.

Of course, there was Italian on the program as well. Ms. Vote performed "Stella del marinar", Laura's prayer for guidance from Amilcare Ponchielli La gioconda. Her vibrato was perfect and filled the room with overtones that bounced off the elaborate piano score, performed by Maestro Chambers, who was accompanist for the evening.

"Parigi, o cara" is the heartbreaking final duet from Giuseppe Verdi's La traviata, a duet filled with false hope and wishful thinking.  Ms. Lopez and Mr. Blake invested it with profound emotional resonance.

Equally heartbreaking is Edgardo's aria of suicidal despair from Gaetano Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor, in which Mr. Blake threw himself into the high notes with thrilling abandon.

It is rare that a piano reduction can come close to Richard Wagner's dense orchestration but Maestro Chambers got it right in "Einsam wachend in der Nacht", Brangane's Act II warning to Isolde, here performed by Ms. Vote.

Three of the artists enjoyed the opportunity to sing lighter works from the American musical theater. Mr. Blake let out all the stops for "Be My Love", popularized by Mario Lanza in 1950. It was passionate, persuasive, and very expressive.

Mr. Pfortmiller performed the English language lyrics to "Stars" from Claude-Michel Schonberg's Les Miserables.  Having heard Alain Boublil's French lyrics, we would have preferred that version, but the English lyrics by Herbert Kretzmer are quite good and Mr. Pfortmiller was strong and determined and overcame our preference.

The musical Kismet has Borodin's music written all over it; indeed Robert Wright and George Forrest adapted it for the Broadway stage and it opened in 1953 with an absurdly complicated plot and Borodin's luscious music. If we are not mistaken "And This is My Beloved" comes from the third movement of his String Quartet #2. Forgetting the elaborate plot, Ms. Lopez performed the song with beauty and simplicity.

The program concluded with the festive party song from Johann Strauss II's Die Fledermaus, which brought this quartet of superb singers together in an exhibition of brotherly love-- "Sing to Love' which we know as "Bruderlein, bruderlein und Schwesterlein".  Again, we prefer the original language but it was just fine.

After this banquet of vocal delights, we repaired to the banquet of gastronomical delights and shared our pleasure with the enthralled members of the audience.

The evening was a fund raiser for New Amsterdam Opera and this yearling company deserves your dollars. Their goal is to identify young talent and to give them performance opportunities right here in New York City. It seems as if the USA provides the best training for singers but is sadly lacking in performance opportunities.  So many of our gifted young artists leave for Europe where their artistry is more highly valued. Let's turn that around!

(c) meche kroop





Tuesday, September 26, 2017

SEND IN THE CLOWNS

SeungHyeon Baek, James Chamberlain, Megan Nielson, and Mark A. B. Lawrence

In a small village in Calabria in the 1860's, townsfolk would wait all year for the traveling circus to come and entertain them with circus acts and commedia dell'arte performances. The stories involved stock characters and reflected familiar themes with which they could identify. Last night at The Slipper Room on the Lower East Side, we watched Opera Ithaca's production of Ruggero Leoncavallo's Pagliacci with the same absorption that they must have felt.

We were amazed that Ithaca, a small city with a population of 30,000, could support such a fine company. This is, in fact, their fourth season and they have been presenting old favorites as well as new works.

As Director, Zachary James pulled some rabbits out of the hat, proving our point that singers (he's a well-known bass) make the best directors. It was impressive that the company, accustomed to performing this work in a more spacious venue in Ithaca with a chorus of 30, was able to adapt to the small space available for just one night here in New York City.

The Circus Ensemble from Ithaca added a great deal of color to the production with an aerialist, jugglers, unicyclist, and acrobats showing their stuff during the instrumental interludes. It was easy to feel transported to another time and place. As a matter of fact, we were reminded of a decades ago experience on a vacant lot in Little Italy when just such a troupe from Italy performed.  We know not if such troupes still exist.

Musical values were fine all around with Maestro Thomas Bagwell playing the piano reduction during the instrumental parts and turning the piano over to Chorus Master Zeek Smith when it was time to conduct the singers. To our amusement, both pianists joined in a kazoo duet!



The prologue was sung by SeungHyeon Baek, one of our favorite baritones; he sang with such gorgeous tone and phrasing and so much commitment to the role that we were immediately drawn in. His acting, as the sneaky trouble-maker and would be rapist Tonio, was so effective that we didn't remember how much we like him personally until the opera ended. Like Rigoletto, Tonio has lived a life of rejection and scorn and we can even feel some sympathy for his plight. Even in the play-within-the-opera, he portrays a servant in love with Colombina and is scorned. Life and art, art and life!

In the role of Nedda, who plays Colombina in the commedia dell'arte performance, soprano Megan Nielson (well remembered as a fine Tatiana in Utopia Opera's production of Eugene Onegin) turned in an excellent performance. Notable was her full rich tone and affecting acting. Just watching her increasing panic as the drama progressed was a lesson in acting.

Her "Stridono lassu" was beautifully rendered but we have never before heard that aria accompanied by an aerialist on a trapeze. We admit that it was a bit distracting but, on the other hand, it did express the freedom of the birds which Nedda so envies. The poor girl has come to resent the man who had rescued her from starvation and given her a home and a job and his love. But he is also possessive and she yearns for freedom. Let's call it a case of hostile dependency.

The role of Canio was performed by tenor James Chamberlain who exhibited a sizable voice that should mature nicely. Tenor Mark A.. B. Lawrence performed the role of Beppe who, in the play-within-the-opera, becomes Colombina's lover and sings a lovely serenade. Colombina's real-life lover Silvio was performed by baritone Erik Angerhofer.

Since you dear readers will not get a chance to see this original production (unless you travel to Ithaca), we have no qualms about sharing the unusual ending, which left us shaken. No knives were drawn. Canio chokes Nedda until she cries out for help from Silvio and he kills Silvio. But Nedda, with her last ounce of strength kills Canio.  The last man standing is Tonio who utters the final line "La commedia e finita".

This line is sometimes spoken by Canio but we liked Mr. James' ending.  It made perfect sense. Mr. James was also responsible for the colorful costuming and simple set--well lit by Ron Ziomek. Dotty Petersen was Hair and Makeup Designer. We would have loved seeing the full production in Ithaca with the extensive circus contributions but feel grateful that we got to see and hear the trimmed down version. The youthful audience packed the space and we are always thrilled to see young people enjoying themselves so enthusiastically.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, September 24, 2017

A CHORUS OF CELLOS


Elad Kabilio, Grace Ho, Luke Krafka, and Caleb van der Swaagh

One speaks of a herd of cattle or a pride of lions, but what does one call a group of cellos? For want of a better collective noun, we have decided upon a "chorus of cellos" since they sing in different voices.  If one of our readers can come up with a better collective term, please address the issue in the comment section.

The voices we heard last night at Elad Kabilio's "Music Talks" were magnificent. At the upper end of the register we are reminded of "head voice" in a soprano and at the lower end of the register we feel the resonance in our body that we feel when a bass is singing.

In the works we heard that were arranged for this unusual grouping of instrumentalists (not unusual for Mr. Kabilio however) voices were distributed among the four players-- but not consistently. Each player had opportunities to play the upper, middle, and lower voices.

Although the entire evening revealed a stunning array of Latin American music, the part of the program that left us bedazzled was soprano Larisa Martinez' heartfelt performance of Manuel de Falla's Siete Canciones Populares Espanolas. We have lost track of the number of times we have written about this cycle of songs but last night's performance was like hearing it for the first time.

Ms. Martinez' warm timbre and commitment to the text brought the emotions straight to the heart--and emotions there were aplenty! She brought out the irony of "El pano moruno", the lighthearted attempt of  "Seguidilla Murciana" to hide a broken heart, the sorrow of "Asturiana" (our personal favorite", the rapture of young love in "Jota", the peacefulness of the lullaby "Nana", and the pain of loss in "Cancion" and "Polo". The songs are brief but the feelings intense.

What was particularly remarkable about this hearing of something familiar was not only Ms. Martinez' memorable performance but that the work, composed for voice and piano, was arranged for voice and four cellos by composer Dina Pruzhansky, who also changed the key. This brought an entirely new texture to the work. It was like returning home after a vacation and finding that a designer had come in your absence and done a marvelous renovation.

Ms. Martinez closed the program with a selection from Maria la O, a zarzuela composed by Cuban Ernesto Lecuona.  What a gorgeous aria and so magnificently performed! All we can say is if we don't get to see a zarzuela presented soon in toto, we will have to do it ourself! 

Ms. Martinez went to Cuba last year as part of an artistic delegation from Turn Around Arts, which was established by Michelle Obama. (And what is the present FLOTUS accomplishing???). We are sure she dazzled the Cubans the same way she dazzled us.

Our first love is always vocal music but the instrumental part of the program was the source of great pleasure for us and for our guest who was unfamiliar with classical music but is now a convert. There is something about four cellos that will do that every time!

What is unique about Music Talks is the enthusiastic manner in which Mr. Kabilio presents the works on the program, instructing audience members in a non-academic fashion on what to listen for--i.e. the five beat measure of the folk-inflected Zortzico of Catalunyan composer Isaac Albeniz, the layered melodies of Argentinian Astor Piazzola, and the intricate manner in which Brazilian composer Heitor Villa Lobos melded Bachian structure with the color of his native folk music.

What a satisfying evening! If you have never attended a Music Talks event, you might consider their upcoming recital in which Metropolitan Opera tenor Aaron Blake (of whose voice we are very fond) will join the string quartet for some exciting music making. Put October 26th on your calendar! And we will also mention that the atmosphere is informal -- up close and personal--just the way we like it!

(c) meche kroop