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.

Thursday, March 30, 2017


Maestro Jorge Parodi and Cast Members of "Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears"

It is difficult to believe that Leoš Janáček wrote his own libretto for The Adventures of Vixen Sharp-Ears based on a child's comic strip.  As if a child could comprehend those deep philosophical ideas!  The 1924 work deals with man's relationship to the natural world and shows a deeply compassionate but unsentimental view of the cycles of birth and death.

The feisty Vixen is captured by the Forester who brings her home as a pet.  When she attacks the rooster and hens, she is tied up.  But she escapes in search of freedom and finds a mate. After a shotgun wedding, they start a family but she meets her sad end (as people also sometimes do) due to an overweening sense of invulnerability.

Staging this opera with its anthropomorphization is always a challenge. We have enjoyed productions at Juilliard, at the New York Philharmonic, and at Manhattan School of Music where we had a fine time at a production by the Summer Voice Program, done on a shoestring, a production that no one but us seems to remember.

The current production at Manhattan School of Music is definitely memorable! We were deeply affected by the inherent drama, elicited with keen imagination, consummate dedication, and hard work by Director Dona D. Vaughn. Janacek's muscular score was conducted by the gifted conductor Jorge Parodi who must have labored long and hard to have elicited such a superlative performance from undergraduate musicians. Janacek relied heavily on the winds and they came through with flying colors. Moravian folk melodies delighted the ear.

And the voices!!! Soprano Shantal Martin used her fine healthy instrument to scale the heights and underscore the expressiveness of her role. What is more, her acting was, well, fox-like. We believed her performance totally. We were so taken in that her death brought tears to her eyes. The idea of the poacher using her skin to make a muff for his bride made us glad that we were not wearing fur.

The role of the Forester, who captures her and brings her home to his family, was sung by baritone Michael Gracco who was just as convincing. His voice was smooth and eminently listenable and he created a character who was, if not terribly likable, terribly believable. There was a hint of sexualization in his interaction with the Vixen. He felt rejected when she escaped and had the vengefulness of a rejected lover.

His wife, mezzo-soprano Victoria Isneria, was angry about the new flea-ridden addition to the family, and perhaps a bit jealous. Later in Act III, the Forester reminisces about his romantic courtship but the direction made it clear that his current interest was in his dog and his rifle, not his wife. These are the little touches that make reality out of a fantastic story. Their two children Frantik (soprano Hannah Black) and Pepik (mezzo-soprano Montana York) tease the Vixen and the family dog (soprano Polixeni Tziouvaras) makes advances on her which she rejects, even though the dog tells her he is a song writer! Oh, the secret life of animals!

Once back in the forest, the Vixen meets her mate, the seductive but caring Gold-Spur, performed by soprano Victoria Falcone. The services of a parson Woodpecker (Hannah Black) are called for post-haste as the forest creatures are given to gossip, just another instance of animals being used to comment on bourgeois human life.

One doesn't hear much in the way of arias but the poacher Haraschta gets to sing two fine folk songs. Fortunately baritone Jose Maldonado has a splendid voice and made the most of it. Mr. Gracco closes the opera with a gorgeous paean to the peace of the forest. 

We would need lots of pages to call attention to all the memorable scenes. The chorus of chickens accompanied by their rooster brought to mind a clutch of male-pleasing "escorts" ruled by a pimp. The rooster was performed by soprano Jihye Oh. The Vixen's proto-feminist lecture to these Stepford chickens was hilarious.

Dances choreographed by John-Mark Owen, whose work we have always admired, filled the stage with graceful members of the woodland community--Heeso Son's Butterfly, Ms. York's Frog, Sarah Schultz' Dragonfly, Ms. Isneria's Cricket,  Alexandra Koutelos' Grasshopper, Claudilia Holloway's Jay, and Biran Egan's Mosquito. Their body movements were just about perfect.

Moving on to the human world, the scene in Pasek's inn was very well done and totally believable--men sitting around drinking, playing cards,  and teasing one another. Pasek was sung by Mr. Egan. The lovelorn schoolmaster was sung by tenor Emmett Tross and the judgmental Parson was sung by bass Guanbo Su who also used his big bass for the role of the grumpy Badger who gets evicted from his home by the Vixen. 

We liked the schoolmaster stumbling home intoxicated and hallucinating his lost love.

The courtship of Sharp-Ears by Gold-Spur was so well done we couldn't help comparing it to Act I of Puccini's La Boheme in which the prospective lovers try to impress one another humble-boasting about their lives.

There was so much about this production to cherish. The costuming by Summer Lee Jack was imaginative and colorful, telling so much about each character. Kate Ashton's set was simple--some sunflowers and a large tree trunk for the forest and a plain table and chairs for the Forester's home and Pasek's inn.

The program offered no credit for the translation which was the best we ever heard. Verbal accents marched in step with musical accents and avoided the displeasure we usually experience when an opera is not performed in its original language. Steven Jude Tietjen was credited as "Supertitles Author" and, since he is a writer, perhaps he adapted someone's translation.  In any event, the titles were apt and witty.

We must also credit Assistant Director Annie Shikany who was responsible for the superb English diction coaching which made the titles superfluous.  Every word was clear which is something we do not take for granted.

All in all, one could not have asked for anything more in an opera production. That they were all undergraduates is astonishing!  We sat next to Catherine Malfitano who taught these gifted young artists in their Junior year so they were well on their way by the time they advanced to Dona Vaughn's Senior Opera Theater. If we were free we would happily return to see the other cast but, sadly, we are not.

If you can beg, borrow, or steal a ticket to one of the next three performances, you will be amply rewarded for your efforts.  This one is a true winner!

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


Binna Han and Siman Chung

We have entered the golden age of the countertenor. We have heard two excellent members of this fach sing the "Refugee's aria" from Jonathan Dove's Flight (one of the very few contemporary operas we enjoyed) and both Jakub Jozef Orlinski and Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen were superb in the role. We profoundly regret missing Mr. Chung's performance of this role with Mannes Opera but, judging by last night's recital at the National Opera Center, we are sure he was superb.

The recital was part of Opera America's Emerging Artist Recital Series and presented Mr. Chung as the Opera Index 2015 Arthur E. Walters Memorial Award Winner.  Opera Index is a nonprofit volunteer organization whose mission it is to advocate for opera and support young artists. They have been holding competitions for over 30 years, the winners of which look like a "Who's Who" of the opera world.

Mr. Chung's recital flew by in a brief 60 minutes but gave the packed house a solid opportunity to assess his prodigious artistry. We enjoyed him the most when he played to his strengths and his strengths lay most securely in the repertory written for his fach. Well, actually, the roles we speak of were written for castrati and it is very fortunate that that barbaric practice is long gone! 

But the role of Farnace in Mozart's Mitridate, re di Ponto was written for alto castrato and Mr. Chung's  performance was just fine and marked by superb control of dynamics and a seamless production of sound that transitioned well to the low notes.

Even better was his performance of two Handel arias. The first, "Dove sei, amato bene" from Rodelinda is an aria of longing, and was written for the character Bertarido, originally sung by a soprano castrato. We loved the embellishments in the ritornello, the sensitive decrescendo and the ear-tickling trill.

Countertenors are often asked to sing angry arias (think "Furibondo spira il vento") and Mr. Chung's performance of "Crude furie degli orridi abissi" from Handel's Serse was also written for soprano castrato but is today most often performed by  mezzo-sopranos. We enjoyed the vocal pyrotechnics.

Similarly, music by Henry Purcell was finely sung. Purcell wrote music for John Dryden's play Oedipus and his "Music for a while" rivals Schubert's "An die Musik" as a paean to what we think of as the highest art form. Mr. Chung exhibited a lovely vibrato and interesting overtones.

Purcell's 1692 masque The Fairy Queen provided two wonderful songs perfect for Mr. Chung's many talents. Our personal favorite was "If music be the food of love". The elaborate embellishments were thrilling and we were happy to hear sufficient variety in the repetitions.  Happily, his English was perfectly enunciated and we were not obliged to look at the titles, although it is always nice to have them just in case.

In an entirely different vein, Mr. Chung offered three songs by Ernest Chausson, bringing us into an entirely different century. His French was flawless and, again we understood every word. We have never heard these songs sung by a countertenor and they sounded lovely. Our favorite was the very sad "Le temps des lilas" from Poeme de l'amour et de la mer. His tone was exquisite, the colors impressive, and the depth of feeling quite moving.

From Sept Melodies, Op.2 we heard "Le colibri" and "Les papillons".  His tone suited the delicacy of the language and music. Mr. Chung's superlative collaborative pianist was Binna Han and she captured the fluttering of wings in the piano part.

A pair of songs by Roger Quilter were well sung but the writing, in our opinion, lacks the poetry of Chausson's writing.

There was also a trio of songs by Brahms which did not thrill us, and we do love our Brahms. It is only our opinion but we think Mr. Chung sounds infinitely better in songs written with a certain voice type in mind. Additionally, his German was not nearly as accomplished as his French. For every crisp consonant there was one that was glossed over. His encore, Strauss' "Zueignung" was given plenty of passion and better enunciation but it just wasn't up to the excellence of the rest of the recital.

We first became acquainted with this fach in a student production at Manhattan School of Music starring Anthony Roth Costanzo in Lukas Foss' Griffelkin.  That must have been 8 or 9 years ago and we have loved the sound ever since. And now we have so many fine countertenors. This gives us the opportunity to appreciate music that has lain dormant for centuries; additionally it gives stimulus to contemporary composers (although we may not appreciate the latter as much). As Jane Marsh said in her master class a couple days ago "If you lay the tracks the train will come".

(c) meche kroop

Monday, March 27, 2017


Michal Biel, Matthew Robert Swensen, and Jakub Jozef Orlinski

Of course we will be reviewing vocal music every night as usual, but let it be noted that the beauty we heard from Matthew Swensen and friends was enough to keep us fulfilled for at least the next week. We will get to the catfight later. First let us take a close look at what made tenor Matthew Swensen's graduation recital so completely fulfilling.

First of all, Mr. Swensen has a notable instrument. We are very tough on tenors who push their voices, those that shout, those that substitute volume for tone, those that throw their heads back and strangle the tone, and those that make our own throat ache.  Mr. Swensen has none of those flaws. He has a pure sweet tone that is like balm to the ear. Of course, he can express other emotions than sweetness but the tone is never disagreeable.

Secondly, Mr. Swensen is incredibly musical and phrases the text beautifully. We heard some perfect dynamic control and great artistry in the embellishments.

Thirdly, he has superb linguistic skills. We heard him in five languages. His French in Henri Duparc's "L'invitation au Voyage" was impeccable and the line was carried through in great Gallic style. His German in the Schubert lieder managed the miraculous--crisp consonants without cheating the vowels and being so completely on the breath that the line achieved an almost Italianate legato. The Italian in the Donizetti emphasized the purity of the vowels which were all connected. Even his English was understandable. We do not speak Czech but it sounded just fine.

Fourthly, he knows how to program a recital to show off his artistry and how to select a collaborative pianist (the marvelous Michal Biel) and how to bring in the right guest artist (the sensational Jakub Jozef Orlinski).

Now let's take a closer look. Henri Duparc's "L'invitation au Voyage" was sung with seductive sensuality and the mood was sustained beautifully during the interludes between verses. Phrases swelled and ebbed like the sea and the piano decrescendo at the end was so beautiful.  We realized we had been holding our breath!

Two lieder were extracted from Schubert's song cycle Die Schone Mullerin, a cycle we adore. We hope someday to hear Mr. Swensen sing the entire oeuvre based on the intense feeling with which he sang "Die liebe Farbe" and "Die bose Farbe". Mr. Biel's masterfully modulated piano underscored the hero's anguish, especially in the staccato passages.

Although we are quite familiar with Dvorak's Gypsy Songs, our familiarity extends only to the German version. It was quite ambitious for Mr. Swensen to tackle the difficult Czech language but, for us, it was a revelation to hear how precisely the music and words enjoyed simultaneous rhythm and stress. So many moods are expressed in this cycle; perhaps this is only a fantasy of gypsy life but the songs involve freedom, dancing, singing, and even the quietude of the forest. Perhaps our favorite is "Songs my mother taught me" which is tender and nostalgic. Mr. Swensen and Mr. Biel captured all the moods.

In "Una Furtiva Lagrima" from Donizetti's L'elisir d'amore, Mr. Swensen put his own spin on Nemorino's character, a less sentimental one than we are accustomed to but an interpretation no less valid. We heard a beautifully controlled portamento and a stunning decrescendo at the end.  There was no grandstanding, just great music.

Although we will never be fans of religious music, we can still admire it when it is well performed and we have nothing but good things to say about "Comfort Ye" from Handel's Messiah. The English was clear, the fioritura well negotiated, and the dynamics well controlled.

Britten's Canticle II is a scene between the biblical characters Abraham and Isaac during which father explains to son why he will be sacrificed. The very idea makes us shudder. We saw this scene in a staged version at Chelsea Opera a few years ago and it upset us then as well.  That being said, Mr. Swensen assumed the role of Abraham with guest artist countertenor Jakub Jozef Orlinski assuming the role of the child. Mr. Swensen shared with the audience his childhood experience of performing this work with his own father.  "And now" he said "Mr. Orlinski will be my son".

It was very well done and we loved the sonority of the two voices together creating the voice of God. What interesting harmonies we heard!

The evening would not end without the catfight. You, dear reader, have been waiting to hear about that and we will not disappoint you. The encore comprised both singers performing Rossini's hilarious concert duet "Duetto buffo di due gatti". This was written for two sopranos and we never even considered hearing it with male voices. It was an original idea and it worked beyond one's highest expectations as the two artists hissed and clawed their way to become top dog--rather top cat. We can't decide on the winner.

(c) meche kroop


Vira Slywotzky, Eric Sedgwick, Xiaoming Tian, Bray Wilkins, and Jane Marsh

Master classes are generally fun (at least for the audience) and always instructive. Yesterday's master class, held by the Metropolitan Opera Guild, was led by Jane Marsh, who made it fun and instructive for everyone. The three participants were known to us and their talents duly noted on this blog on numerous occasions. But this was a special occasion.

There were many things that made it special. It was the first time we attended a class given by Jane Marsh, who has had an illustrious career and had so much to share with the three students, most of it gleaned from her vast experience with the Russian language and with Eugene Onegin in particular.

It was the first time we've witnessed a master class devoted to one opera and Tchaikovsky's masterpiece was the perfect choice. Obviously, the three participants all knew their arias well and most likely had sung the roles to great acclaim. So the class felt like witnessing the polishing of gems that had already been expertly cut. Polishing just brings out the luster--subtleties that we will know to look for the next time we attend this operatic treasure.

Ms. Marsh pointed out that the libretto is not truly a libretto, but rather a lengthy poem written by Pushkin in 1833 and set by Tchaikovsky in 1879; every Russian person can recite this poem since it is taught in their excellent educational system. It is such fine poetry and such fine composing that the musical stresses and the textual ones match up perfectly.

In general, a good strong middle voice is necessary because of the dark sound of the Russian language. This is not Italian and sentimentality is to be avoided.

Soprano Vira Slywotzky is most known to us from the world of art song (Mirror Visions Ensemble) and operetta (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!). Numerous reviews of her delightful singing are archived right here. Although we suspected there was a lot more to her talent, we had not had the opportunity to hear it until yesterday. Her Tatyana was a revelation!

Ms. Slywotzky's native tongue is Ukrainian and her ease with Russian allowed her to focus on the creation of a character; she totally convinced us in the "letter scene" that she was a love-sick seventeen-year-old experiencing infatuation and romantic longing for the first time in her life. Ms. Marsh's coaching concentrated on dynamics and pacing and body language.

She asked for some urgency in the first few couplets as this involuntary passion has produced a sense of resolve which grows. Ms. Marsh had abridged this lengthy scene without negative effect, the better to have time to work on key phrases. She pointed out that Tatyana's upbringing was conservative and her body language must be restrained. No grandstanding on the high note! No arm waving!

After she writes some of the letter, the next part should be slow and piano as she reflects on her doubts and her feelings of being misunderstood. The suggestions took Ms. S. to a new level. We were glad that she remained onstage to be coached in the confrontation scene with Onegin.

We loved Xiaoming Tian's interpretation of Onegin. We have often said that the guy is not a heel; he is an elegant somewhat reserved aristocrat from the big city and he is letting Tatyana down easily with some good advice. It's a wonderful scene and much of the coaching was devoted to positioning Tatyana's body and how she jumps up when Onegin arrives.

Onegin is meant to be reticent and not demonstrative. Mr. Tian (whose work we know well from his advanced studies and performances at Manhattan School of Music) outdid himself with his gorgeous baritonal sound and it is upon this that the singer of Russian must rely, not upon cheap theatrics. The character he created was a sympathetic one, which is necessary if we are to feel the tragedy at the end. Mr. Tian's word coloration, phrasing, and gestures were impeccable. The two singers worked well together and we'd love to see them in an entire performance.

In the role of Lensky, we heard tenor Bray Wilkins whom we have heard a few times over the past few years. From Ms. Marsh we learned that the character of Lensky was probably rather autobiographical on Pushkin's part; indeed the poet died in a duel after surviving 29 (!) duels based on his romantic jealousy.  Now there's a good topic for a new opera!

"Kuda, kuda" is frequently heard in competitions and is a terrific tenor showpiece. Mr. Wilkins was coached to begin singing facing upstage and to gradually turn to face the audience. Lensky is a poet and he is ruminating about the meaning of life, knowing that he is facing death.

When he thinks about the world forgetting him, he should allow a decrescendo to happen without making it happen. When he cries out to Olga, he must open it up and lean on the phrase with passion. We have heard this before but it is worth repeating Ms. Marsh's instructions to "think up on the low notes and think down on the high notes". We understood exactly what she meant and it did make quite a difference in Mr. Wilkins' performance.

The challenging piano reduction was well-negotiated by Eric Sedgwick who is always an asset.

The afternoon did not end until Ms. Marsh gave each singer an opportunity to express how they felt about singing in Russian and specifically in these roles. We expect to approach this opera, specifically the characters of this opera, with renewed appreciation.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, March 25, 2017


Errin Brooks and Kelly Griffin in New Amsterdam Opera's production of La Forza del Destino

How long we have yearned to hear Verdi's La Forza del Destino! Is it rarely performed because the roles are difficult to cast? Or does it have something to do with the superstition that surrounds it, much like Shakespeare's so-called "Scottish play" the name of which actors are reluctant to pronounce. We are happy to report that New Amsterdam Opera succeeded without any mishaps of which we are aware. The audience filled The Riverside Theatre and the applause was thunderous.

Artistic Director Keith Chambers conducted a pick-up orchestra which he pulled together quite well with only a few rough patches that were easy to overlook. But we could not overlook the fortuitous "flutery" of Rosa Jang and the happy "harpery"of Melanie Genin. Both were outstanding in their contributions. The overture is a masterpiece with one memorable theme following another. The initial "fate" theme is propulsive and highly rhythmic. Then along comes a sorrowful one, a lyrical one, a heraldic one, and a playful one. Although the 1869 opera is rarely performed, the overture is a concert staple.

New Amsterdam Opera aims to give young singers the opportunity to perform a role before a live audience in concert version. When one hears young singers eight nights a week one gets to recall quite a bit about them and to form a well-rounded picture of where their strengths and weaknesses lay and how they are growing.

For example, Kelly Griffin, the dramatic soprano who sang Leonora was possibly one of Daniel Cardona's "discoveries" about 3 years ago when she bowled us over with....(you guessed it, didn't you?)..."Pace, pace mio Dio". We heard her sing it again a few months ago; she has grown into the entire role and performed it with passion and intensity, well served by her generous instrument, which has an agreeable vibrato.

Her lover Don Alvaro was sung by Errin Brooks whose sizable tenor won him the Wagnerian prize from the George London Foundation. This is one of those huge voices that will take awhile to bring under control and fulfill its promise. In Act I, although we could understand every word of his Italian, he sang the line unmusically, as if it were English. As the evening progressed he did remember his legato and needed only to lighten up. He tends to emphasize volume and thereby squelches the overtones we want to appreciate in the tenor instrument. He would do well to bring his voice forward and to avoid pushing.

We loved the performance of mezzo-soprano Janara Kellerman as the gypsy Preziosilla. We have previously enjoyed her as Santuzza. This is an artist who throws herself into a role and clearly enjoys herself, seeming effortlessly.  Her "Rataplan" was a delightfully light moment in a heavy opera; she is urging the Spaniards to throw off the Austrian yoke. How Verdi must have loved that theme!

Leonora's brother Don Carlo was excellently sung by the polished Verdi baritone Stephen Gaertner whom we last heard at Lauren Flanigan's Comfort Ye recital. His duets with Mr. Brooks' were highlights of the evening. He was out to kill Don Alvaro but, unwittingly the two men became military buddies until their true identities were discovered.  Uh-oh!

Leonora's father the Marquis was sung by bass Hidenori Inoue whom we greatly enjoyed as Don Pasquale at The Manhattan School of Music this season.  His character got killed off in Act I and we were sorry not to hear any more of him! But we will surely hear a lot more of him in the future, since his bass is fully mature and ready for so many roles, needing only costuming and makeup to age him. 

We also liked Stefan Szkafarowsky, the bass cast as Padre Guardiano, the abbot of the monastery that gives Leonora a secret dwelling to hide from the cruel world. He sang his role with a nice legato and secure presence. The irritable Fra Melitone was sung by bass-baritone Daniel Klein whose over-the-top acting impressed us more than his grainy voice. It is rare for a singer to show so much acting chops in a concert performance!

Veteran tenor Robert Brubaker sang the role of Trabuco.  How well we remember his performance as Anna Nicole's husband in the opera of the same name, and his performance as Herod in Salome at the Santa Fe Opera.

Mezzo-soprano Melissa Serluco appeared briefly as Leonora's maid. We enjoyed her performance not too long ago as Dorothee, one of Cinderella's step-sisters in the Utopia Opera production of Massenet's Cendrillon.

And finally, we were introduced to a new voice, lyric baritone Wil Kellerman who nicely filled the roles of the Alcade (Mayor) and that of the surgeon who decides that the hero will survive his injuries.  We hope to hear more of him.

And we hope that some opera company in NYC will decide to produce this outstanding opera in a full production.  Hint, hint!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, March 24, 2017


Michal Biel, Cody Quattlebaum, Chris Reynolds, and Samantha Hankey

Juilliard Vocal Arts Honors Recitals are always a treat. Singers are nominated by their voice teachers and then audition for a panel of judges. One of the judges for this recital was Paul Appleby and if anyone knows what makes a good recitalist it is he. The interesting feature of these recitals is that the singers select their own program, presumably with the help of their respective pianists. Sometimes one hears rarely heard masterpieces.

The first half of the program was given to notable bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum whom we have so greatly enjoyed on the operatic stage. Those who thrilled to his Figaro and his Mephistopheles at the Metropolitan Opera National Council Finals last Sunday would have been astonished last night with his artistry and versatility as a song recitalist.

Although we adore the Ravel cycle Don Quichotte a Dulcinee,  Jacques Ibert composed his own cycle in 1931, three years before Ravel composed his.  We were thrilled to be introduced to Chansons de Don Quichotte; they are not better but they are surely equal in value. Mr. Quattlebaum performed them in perfect French with sonorous vocalism and heightened dramatic impact.

It seems a paradox but Mr. Quattlebaum's tone can be exciting and soothing at the same time--and always pleasing to the ear. There is a marvelous vibrato at the lower end of the register and his voice expanded to fill Alice Tully Hall. The first song, "Chanson du depart de Don Quichotte" set text by Pierre de Ronsard and the other three songs set text by Alexandre Arnoux.  There is a prominent vocalise in "Chanson a Dulcinee" which Mr. Quattlebaum enjoyed as much as we did. He assumed a different persona for "Chanson du duc" and exhibited a vastly different vocal color for "Chanson de la mort de Don Quichotte" that moved us deeply. We particularly liked the dynamic variety from pp to ff.

Collaborative pianist Michal Biel was right with him all the way, as he was for the subsequent Drei Lieder nach Gedichten von Michelangelo by Hugo Wolf. His piano echoed the singer's powerful presence and established a feeling of portent. The performance was superb but they will never be among our favorite songs, nor will Wolf's setting of Goethe's "Grenzen der Menschheit" which achieved stunning intensity. There was a tender passage that moved us however, and Mr, Quattlebaum's German was as fine as his French.

The final set comprised Cuatro Canciones sobre Textos Gallegos by Anton Garcia-Abril, a 20h c. Spanish composer and musician who is best known for composing sound tracks for movies, especially "spaghetti Westerns". His cycle was uncharacteristically melodic, both in the vocal line and in the piano writing. We enjoyed it for its accessibility and the pleasing sound of Spanish which Mr. Quattlebaum handled as well as the French and German.

The second half of the evening was performed by mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey, a highly musical artist whom we keep liking more and more every time we hear her.  It has been only four days since she won the Met National Council Award with some marvelous Mozart and terrific Tchaikovsky. What impressed us most about last night's performance was how well she used her body to underscore the feeling of the song--something that had not struck us previously.

We have always perceived her, however, as centered and poised, making ample use of vocal color to convey the feeling of the text. Her voice literally soared in Franz Liszt's settings of Goethe's text and her expressiveness achieved new heights. It was quite a coincidence that she sang a wide selection of Robert Schumann's Ruckert lieder, several of which we reviewed last night, sung by soprano Miah Persson. It was fascinating to hear the subtle differences in interpretation. 

We particularly enjoyed "Der Himmel hat eine Trane geweint" in which an oyster captures a tear from heaven and creates a pearl which it shelters. The metaphor of pain and desire was beautifully expressed. Another favorite was the ecstatic "Widmung".

When Ms. Hankey sang "Aus den ostlichen Rosen" we could see and smell the roses; the piano of Chris Reynolds conveyed all the sweetness of the sentiment. In "Flugel! Flugel!" Ms. Hankey's voice soared along with Icarus' flight.  It is a lengthy song and offered many opportunities for variations in color. Mr. Reynold's turbulent piano conveyed the fall of Icarus with profound anguish. 

A half dozen songs by Richard Strauss brought the splendid recital to a fine close. Everyone remarks about Strauss' writing for the soprano but we had no problem with Ms. Hankey taking on these songs. The messa di voce in "Waldseligkeit" was delicate and Mr. Reynold's piano limned the rustling of the leaves.

We particularly enjoyed the light-hearted "Einerlei" in which the lover confronts the paradox of familiarity and novelty.  In "Schlechtes Wetter", Ms. Hankey told a tender tale whilst Mr. Reynold's piano let fly with a storm.

If we were to add one element to these excellent recitals it would be the projection of titles. Not everyone in the audience speaks all those language and looking down at the translations in the program takes one away from the immediacy of the experience.  The four artists onstage merited our full attention.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, March 23, 2017


Malcolm Martineau and Miah Persson at Zankel Hall (photo by Fadi Kheir)

What is a recitalist to do when her vocal partner becomes indisposed?  Soprano Miah Persson was scheduled to give a recital with baritone Florian Boesch who was indisposed. We were not there behind the scenes to tell you how it went but we were in the audience in Zankel Hall and witnessed the end result. There was a revision in the program and in exchange for what we missed, we heard a lovely program from soprano Miah Persson who looks as beautiful as she sounds. One is not supposed to notice things like a singer's physical beauty but we confess it certainly adds to the experience.

Ms. Persson focused her program on songs by Schumann and was able to perform Frauenliebe und Leben in its entirety, a far better enterprise than singing excerpts. We love this cycle and never tire of it. We are always tuning our ears into the changes in a woman's life cycle and if Adalbert von Chamiso's text sounds sexist in our day and age, we care not a whit. It is fine for us to recognize how women's lives have changed and if 19th c. women derived their sense of self from the man that chose them, well, that's okay with us.

What we do miss, however, is what happened between the birth of the subject's baby and the husband's death.  Perhaps he died prematurely but, never mind, it's a wonderful cycle and we hope we never have to hear it sung by a man!  (LOL). Last night, Ms. Persson gave it all she had, and what she had was substantial. She captured the bedazzlement of a young woman meeting someone considered beyond her reach; she limned the incredulity of being chosen; she illustrated the call to maturity brought upon by her engagement followed by the excitement of the wedding which she shared with her sisters, whose childhood games she would leave behind.

Pregnancy brought new joys and the ecstasies of motherhood were beautifully captured; we cannot recall a more authentic performance of the phrase "Du lieber, lieber Engel, du, Du schauest mich an und lachelst dazu!" but it sounded so real that we wondered whether Ms. Persson has experienced motherhood herself.  Likewise, we felt all the mixed emotions one feels when a life partner dies--there is anger at being abandoned, mixed with the grief of loss, and the feeling that life (at least as one knows it) has ended.  Ms. Persson's effective coloring succeeded in showing the subject's maturation.

For us, this performance was the highlight of the evening and we greatly admire the manner in which Mr. Martineau gently supported the vocal line and the pathos of the postlude in which he repeats the melody of the first song "Seit ich ihn gesehen". Mr. Martineau has soft hands and a light touch; he is the perfect partner for Ms. Persson. His superb playing never ever upstages the singer and it is only when one submits to the mood of the song that one realizes the magnitude of his selfless contribution. Fortunately, Mr. Martineau had a solo on the program--Schumann's "Traumerei"--in which the silences spoke as effectively as the notes. We have noticed that in singers but rarely in the piano.

There were other wonderful Schumann songs. We particularly enjoyed the ethereal "Mondnacht" with Joseph von Eichendorff's evocative text; Mr. Martineau's prelude and interludes painted some exquisite aural pictures. Friedrich Ruckert's text for "Schneeglockchen" evoked a completely different but charming vision--that of the floral herald of Spring. Schumann had a real feel for Ruckert but Eduard Morike's "Er ist's" filled us with a similar but more passionate anticipation of Spring.

Ruckert's "Der Himmel hat eine Trane geweint" filled us with wonder and also makes us wonder why today's poets are producing such unlikeable poetry, leading to such unappealing settings! We also loved the charming "O ihr Herren" in which a poet, symbolized by a nightingale, seeks a quiet corner for his songs.

Robert's wife Clara appeared on the program as well with the passionate "Er ist gekommen" and the gentle strophic song "Liebst du um Schonheit". Although Mahler set the same text so beautifully, Clara's setting owes no one an apology. The melody remains in one's memory and pleases enormously.

Robert Schumann also set texts by Goethe and his music for "Nachtlied" amplifies the concise but pungent text. 

Mary Stuart's words written prior to her death (translated into German by Gisbert Freiherr von Vincke) did not thrill us like the rest of the program. It was a grim way to end such a glorious recital and we were quite relieved by the beautiful encore which we believe was Edvard Grieg's "Jeg elsker dig" and which we believe was sung in Danish. Please overlook our inability to distinguish one Scandinavian language from another! In any event it lifted our sunken spirits.

As one may have expected from a Swedish soprano, there were six additional songs by the Norwegian Grieg on the program. Grieg was influenced by Schumann and had a vast output, although there are only a handful performed regularly on recital programs. We favored the delightful "Lauf der Welt", sung in German, with Mr. Marineau's frisky piano adding to the fun. Grieg wrote for his wife Nina and the ecstatic "Ein traum" is one of those thrilling songs that deals with love fulfilled.

Fulfilled might be the best word to describe how we felt at the conclusion of this fine recital. If we have failed to mention Ms. Persson's pleasing instrument and her musical phrasing, it is because we were most taken by her artistry as an interpreter.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, March 22, 2017


The talented crew from Heartbeat Opera

There are two kinds of people on Planet Opera--the people who make it happen and the people who support them.  Before we brought our own website into being we wrote reviews for The Opera Insider which aimed to provide a forum for both populations to exchange ideas.  The Opera Insider is no more but we still relish the opportunity to mingle with and exchange ideas with young artists.  Last night at the stunning sky-high apartment of Jill Steinberg (an artist herself in the field of interior design) we got a more intimate look at one of our favorite small companies--Heartbeat Opera.

This is Heartbeat Opera's third season and they have distinguished themselves by their unique approach of including visual artists right from the very start. This team approach is all-encompassing and amounts to a 21st c. version of Richard Wagner's gesamtkunstwerk. Anyone who attends one of their productions is destined to become a loyal fan. We well recall our first exposure to Heartbeat Opera. It was Jacques Offenbach's Daphnis and Chloe and it impressed us with its imaginative staging as well as fine singing. 

Since then we have seen all of their productions and always recognize a special spark that brings the work into the 21st c. without betraying the intentions of the composer and librettist. This is exactly what it takes to bring opera into the entertainment sphere of young people. Affordable tickets and stimulating productions ensure a new young audience.

Last night's soiree introduced a select audience to the fine work of Heartbeat Opera and also introduced two female stars who will be appearing in the Spring Season. If these two young women did not knock your socks off, you must have been barefoot to start out with! Sichel Claverie absolutely sizzled as the gypsy heroine Carmen from the Bizet opera of the same name. Banlingyu Ban touched our heart as Cio-cio San in "Un bel di" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly.

These two operas are favorites that have become cliches. But in the hands of Co-Artistic Directors Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard we feel confident in expecting a fresh look at both and we feel equally confident in urging our readers to get their tickets early before they are gone. We hate to see opera-lovers disappointed.

There was plenty more entertainment last night. Ms. Ban treated us to a very sexy "Meine Lippen sie kussen so heiss" from Franz Lehar's Giuditta and then Ms. Claverie  dazzled us with "Carceleras" from Ruperto Chapi's zarzuela, Las Hijas del Zebedeo which she performed with extra sazon.

There was also a lovely performance of Elgar's "Capricieuse" perfomed by Jacob Ashworth on the violin and Lee Dionne on the piano.

So far, half of the funds needed for the Spring season (May 20-28) have already been raised and if you have been looking for an opportunity to make a difference on Planet Opera, now's your chance to support a daringly innovative company.  It sure beats banging your head on a wall trying to change the current abhorrent political situation.  Make a difference!

And don't forget to read the enthusiastic article in Opera News!

(c) meche kroop

Monday, March 20, 2017


2017 Finalists in Met National Council Competition (photo by Fay Fox)

In our eyes and to our ears, these are all winners. Several of them have been followed by us for some time and garnered our appreciation for their growth as artists. Others were new to us at the Semi-Finals.  Of course readers can readily learn which six of the nine semi-finalists the judges chose, but you won't learn that here. Our aim is to share our experience of the actual performances and that is exactly what we will do. Frankly, it felt quite uncomfortable to call six out of nine "winners". The other three are anything but "losers". Some of the nine artists are fully stage-ready.

We have heard tenor Kyle van Schoonhoven perform Peter Grimes' "Mad Scene" from the Britten opera at least twice before we heard it today but this was the first time we heard it with full orchestra. It was disturbing in a very good way; we felt such sympathy for the character's distress; this was a man pushed to the limits.  It was a shattering performance. Mr. van Schoonhoven also performed Rienzi's prayer from the Wagner opera and we could see some Siegfried in his future.

Another artist who is complete in his stage-worthiness is countertenor Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, whom we have heard on a couple occasions. His penetrating sound falls nicely on the ear and his dramatic interpretation of the lost refugee from Jonathan Dove's Flight  was chilling and also disturbing. It is significant that these two young singers made such an impression on us, since we have never had much interest in English language opera. It reminds us of a great chef who can cook a dish you usually won't eat and you wind up loving it!  Mr. Cohen's other selection was from Handel's Rodelinda and his plangent quality was enhanced by an affecting messa di voce and some stunning embellishments in the ritornello.

Mezzo-soprano Samantha Hankey has a very centered stage presence that allows her beautiful voice to reach out unencumbered by flashy theatrics. She controlled the dynamics and the dramatics equally well in "Parto, parto" from Mozart's La Clemenza di Tito. She built the aria from a quiet place and let loose with a stunning crescendo on "Guardami, guardami".  Her perfect technique carried through in her performance of "Da chas nastal" from Tchaikovsky's Maid of Orleans, making us put this opera on our wish list. She brought this aria to a fiery climax.

Ms. Hankey will be singing this Thursday at the Juilliard Vocal Arts recital along with bass-baritone Cody Quattlebaum who impressed us yesterday with his ability to create compelling characters. He was a fine Figaro, ready to match wits with the Count Almaviva in "Se vuol ballare" from the Mozart opera Nozze di Figaro; he exhibited devilish glee in "Vous qui faites l'endormie" from Gounod's Faust. Along with his superb vocal gift, Mr. Quattlebaum's command of the stage and dramatic ability have always impressed us, and we are looking forward to Thursday's recital which you will surely read about here.

Soprano Vanessa Vasquez always turns in a meaningful performance and lets us see the world through her character's eyes. With beautiful tone, she disappeared into Cio-Cio San, wishfully seeing Pinkerton's ship pulling into the harbor in "Un bel di" from Puccini's Madama Butterfly. Her scene from Act I of Verdi's La Traviata was so intense that the audience erupted into applause prematurely. She was unperturbed and shone in the cabaletta.

Soprano Kirsten MacKinnon gave an emotional performance of "Otchego eto prezhde ne znala" ("Why haven't I known this before") from Tchaikovsky's Iolanta, an aria which we have only heard once--onstage at the Met. She sang with lovely tone and a keen control of dynamics. Her second aria was "Ah, je ris de me voir" from Faust and generated considerable excitement, both vocally and dramatically.

Gabriella Reyes de Ramirez performed "Il est doux, il est bon" from Massenet's Herodiade. Her splendid soprano instrument has a fine vibrato and we heard some gorgeous notes at the top of the register. The second aria she chose is not well known but we were fortunate enough to have heard New York City Opera's production of Daniel Catan's compelling opera Florencia en el Amazonas. We thought she did justice (and then some) to "Cristobal, Es esta luz la muerte?"

Soprano Natalie Image has a voice much larger than her petite frame would suggest. She exhibited a nicely focused sound and a winning flirtatious personality in the Snow Maiden's Aria from the Rimsky-Korsakov opera--another opera that is unknown to us but which is also going on our wish list. Ms. Image has the talent for getting a song across, as she also did in her other selection "O luce di quest'anima" from Donizetti's Linda di Chamounix with its dazzling coloratura. We always enjoy a good trill!

Tenor Richard Smagur performed two selections in French with a solid technique. We heard "La fleur que tu m'avais jetee" from Bizet's Carmen and "Pourquoi me reveiller" from Massenet's Werther, which we just heard at the Met with Isabel Leonard and Vittorio Grigolo. Mr. Smagur is like a finely cut gem that needs some polishing to reveal its beauty. The polishing we hope he receives consists of loosening up physically so that his body goes along with the wonderful feeling in his voice.  We want convincing characterizations on the opera stage.

The nine gifted singers we heard were culled from 1200 applicants in 42 cities around the USA, Canada, and Puerto Rico. Gracious and gorgeous superstar Renee Fleming was hostess for the evening and paid tribute to all the volunteers who donate time and funding to make the Met National Council Auditions happen. They surely deserve the credit and the nine finalists who climbed the ladder of selection are destined for fine careers. We wish them all well. The average audience member never realizes just how hard these young artists work to achieve these dizzying heights.

While waiting for the judges to make their decision, we were treated to performances by three winners from ten years ago. Tenor Michael Fabiano sang "Oh! fede negar potesssi...Quando le sere al placido", Rodolfo's lament from Verdi's Luisa Miller.

Soprano Amber Wagner, who will perform a recital at the Morgan Library next Sunday under the auspices of the George London Foundation, sang "Es gibt ein Reich". Her generous instrument seems made for Strauss and we hope we will get more of it next week.

Mezzo-soprano Jamie Barton is simply a force of nature and her unique and powerful instrument always astonishes us. She sounds like no one else; we hope it is not sacrilege to say that we think of a chocolate stout filling our mouth and dizzying our head. She performed an intoxicating version of "Acerba volutta, dolce tortura", sung in Cilea's Adriana Lecouvreur by the jealous Princess de Bouillon. WOW!

What an incredible afternoon, thanks to the Metropolitan National Council! Let us also credit Nicola Luisotti for his superb conducting.


Sunday, March 19, 2017


Ken Noda and Hyesang Park

It was a cold and nasty late winter day outside, but inside the vast St. Michael's Church on the Upper West Side, Spring was in the air and in the ear. Ushering in the delights of the upcoming Spring was star soprano Hyesang Park with the incredibly sensitive accompaniment of Ken Noda. The occasion was a Neighborhood Concert produced by the Weill Music Institute of Carnegie Hall in partnership with St. Michael's church. The concert is part of the Marilyn Horne Legacy at Carnegie Hall, and the divine Ms. Horne was in the audience for this very special event.

We have reviewed Ms. Park over a half dozen times (all reviews archived) and fell all over ourselves the first time we heard her in 2013. But she just keeps getting better and better, even when there seems to be no room for improvement. Her instrument is bright but never shrill; her technique is flawless; but it is something else that draws the listener in, as if the fragrance of a rose slipped around your heart.  To hear her is to love her. Her voice is like a bell that summons one away from whatever dark place you may have been stuck in.

Perhaps the rose analogy came out of the gorgeous rose-colored gown she wore but there is no denying that her inner beauty, revealed when she modestly addressed the audience, informs everything she sings. We don't know of another singer who can close her eyes in rapture without losing contact with the audience. 

We have been most familiar with her bel canto roles and a Mozart concert aria.  Yesterday's recital revealed a number of other aspects to her versatility. Our companion, fluent in both French and German, agreed with our high opinion of Ms. Park's linguistic skills. We can attest to her authenticity in Spanish.

The program opened with Joaquin Rodrigo's Cuatro madrigales amatorios, four memorably tuneful songs of widely divergent moods; the mournful "Con que la lavare" and the teasing "De donde venis, amore?" were our two personal favorites. These songs are heard frequently on recital programs but Ms. Park made them fresh and new.

Also in Spanish were three selections from Enrique Granados' Canciones amatorias, with which we were unfamiliar. In these, Mr. Noda's collaborative piano was outstanding. He always impresses us with his profound involvement with the singer and the two of them made marvelous music together.

Clara Schumann's songs deserve to be on more recital programs and we were happy to hear five of them, all sung with superlative German diction and a remarkable depth of feeling. Mrs. Schumann's song output was certainly overshadowed by her husband's but she was no minor talent! Just hear her setting of "Liebst du um Schonheit", the Ruckert text that was famously set by Gustav Mahler!

We have often heard the vocalise of Heitor Villa-Lobos' Bachianas brasileiras No. 5. When Ms. Park sang it, our thought was "Angels can speak without words".  We cannot recall ever hearing the beautiful text about nightfall. Ms. Park handled the vocalise, the text, and the humming section with equal skill. We are not familiar with Portuguese but we shall assume that it was perfect.

Poulenc seemed to favor surrealistic texts to which we have trouble relating; however, Ms. Park's dramatic gifts allowed us the illusion that we understood! Now that is a strange phenomenon. She captured a sort of cabaret feeling to them without depriving them of their seriousness. We particularly enjoyed "Paganini" from Metamorphoses and the pictorial "C" from Deux poemes de Louis Aragon. The ironic "Fetes galantes" was performed at rapid-fire speed without missing a single syllable.

It is a courageous act for a Korean woman to sing Tosti songs, usually best sung by an Italian tenor breathing garlic into every phrase. We go on record here as saying that Ms. Park did them justice, even bringing something new to them. In "Aprile", she painted an aural picture of Spring along with Mr. Noda's lilting arpeggios. "L'ultima canzone" was so heartbreaking we could scarcely breathe. (We managed to make a one minute video which you can find on our Facebook page Voce di Meche.) The joyful "Marechiaro" was sung in accurate dialect.  We loved every moment.

Ms. Park closed the program with a lovely setting of the 23rd Psalm by N. Unyoung. Although religious music is not our favorite, the words are in Korean and Ms Park sang from the depths of her soul. It is clear from what place she derives spiritual sustenance, the more power to her.

As encore, she offered "O, mio babbino caro" from Giacomo Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. As the true artist she is, Ms. Park made this oft-heard aria completely her own.  She made the church her own.  She made the audience her own. This beautiful young woman is destined for stardom on the world's stages; and she deserves it!

(c) meche kroop


Saturday, March 18, 2017


Participants in Emmanuel Villaume Master Class at Juilliard (photo by Michael DiVito)

Thursday's Master Class at Juilliard was unusual and unforgettable. Most master classes involve a single singer getting coached in the finer points of song interpretation. The class conducted by Maestro Emmanuel Villaume (through the Ellen and James S. Marcus Institute for Vocal Arts and the Collaborative Piano Departments at Juilliard) involved three duets and one ensemble. As one might have expected, the charmingly Gallic maestro worked exclusively in French.

Apparently, he had already worked with this select group of students, all graduate students, because they sounded just terrific before their coaching. That being said, each pair reached a new level of artistry within their strictly allotted half hour. The progress was remarkable. Maestro Villaume has a profound understanding of each character, as much as any director; but he fosters characterological authenticity within the musical context. Show me anyone else who achieves this depth!

In general, he likes to play with the concept of tension and release in the vocal line. He urged the students to find reasons for the silences between phrases by focusing on the thoughts the character might be having. He advised the students to listen to each other, which, we imagine, is even more difficult than it is in the theater, given that there are so many other things with which to be concerned.

Two coaching sessions involved Georges Bizet's masterpiece Carmen, a masterpiece which the composer thought was a failure when he died, never knowing that it would achieve the position of the most-produced opera ever. We had tenor Alexander McKissick as Don Jose in the Act I duet with Micaela, portrayed by soprano Maria Fernanda Brea, accompanied by Michael Biel. 

They worked effectively on character. Don Jose is happy to see her but rather ambivalent in his affection due to his recent encounter with Carmen. Of course he wants to hear how his mother is in "Parle-moi de ma mere". He can be gentle here but he must color the phrase differently when he repeats it. One can sing agitato while singing piano.

Micaela must be shy but also flirtatious.  She means to marry Don Jose as his mother wishes. But she is innocent and knows nothing of his situation.  Ms. Brea also conveyed a sense of her character's inner strength which she would call upon in Act III when she goes into the mountains to find the wayward DJ.

Next we heard soprano Christine Taylor Price as Leila and tenor Miles Mykkanen as Nadir in the Act II duet from Bizet's Les pecheurs de perles. This provided the perfect demonstration of the tension/release concept we noted above, to avoid metronomic phrasing which is just boring. Collaborative pianist Will Kelley was astute in getting that point.

A phrase from pharmacotherapy came to mind which can also apply to a scene.  "Start low and go slow". Obviously if you begin a scene with great intensity, there is nowhere to go. In this scene, Leila must listen closely to Nadir's line and to enter not only at the right time but at the right level of intensity. No wonder we love duets!

Further instructions were given to use the consonants to project the vowels. We have noticed this deficit rather often in American singers who often sound afraid of the consonants. A further point was made that French opera is "softer" than Italian opera.

This point was reiterated in the next duet from  Jules Massenet's Werther. There is no melodrama in French opera! "Il faut nous separer" is a suspended waltz which, like the relationship between Werther (sung by tenor Gerard Schneider) and Charlotte (mezzo-soprano Natalia Kutateladze), goes nowhere. CP for this duet was the excellent Katelan Terrell.

Much time was devoted to phrasing and knowing which words in a phrase to weight. The crescendo on long notes can continue in intensity through the silences. The singer can feel without "acting".

A fine point of French diction was to allow the final "e" of a word (like "cherche") to evaporate.  It's there but it should never be obvious.

The final coaching was the most fun and apparently delighted the audience as well as the singers. We will never be able to hear the Act II quintet from Carmen without remembering the points made by Maestro Guillaume. We would tend to agree that making this scene light-hearted like a cabaret sets up the audience for the tragedy to come. 

Le Dancaire (sung by baritone Dimitri Katotakis) and his sidekick Le Remendado (tenor John Noh) are trying to persuade Frasquita (soprano Anneliese Klenetsky) and Mercedes (mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn) to come along on their next smuggling adventure. 

Only Carmen (mezzo-soprano Amanda Lynn Bottoms) refuses.  And then....she drops the bombshell!  She is "amoureuse". The group is incredulous. We have never scene this scene done so effectively; it was accomplished by increasing the tempo and getting each singer to make a more decisive entrance. The entire quintet must be propulsive. Nathan Raskin at the piano had much to contribute in this regard.

Singing about duty (devoir) and love (amour) requires very different coloration.

Another point was that Dancaire's portamento can be used to show his humorous incredulity.  Very effective! These characters are having fun and in a way are playing themselves, perhaps a bit self-consciously. Maestro Villaume injected one final touch that was very effective--a rivalry between Frasquita and Mercedes. The latter sings a line and the former repeats it while upstaging her.

What a worthwhile class! So much information imparted graciously and effectively. 

(c) meche kroop

Friday, March 17, 2017


The colorful musicians of the Kyrgyz Republic

One of the chief advantages of living in NYC is the opportunity to experience many cultures. Until last night we knew nothing about the Kyrgyz Republic, only that it was somewhere in Central Asia. The colorful program presented last night at Merkin Concert Hall got us curious about this landlocked country with a population smaller than that of NYC. Now we know that it was on the Silk Road and that waves of immigration and invasions have resulted in a varied culture. We learned that many of their musicians were trained under the Soviet system but that independence was achieved in 1991.

Last night was a love-fest between this small nation and our own.  The Kyrgyz American Foundation has a mission-- to strengthen civil, humanitarian and cultural ties between the two nations, and one important way to accomplish this is through the arts. The love fest was not just on the stage. Kyrgyz pianist Aza Sydykov and American soprano Nikoleta Rallis are not just performing partners but romantic partners as well.

The program opened with a warm welcome from leaders of the Kyrgyz American Foundation: Mr. Sydykov and Jonathan Levin, another fine pianist.  In an interesting twist, Mr. Sydykov accompanied Ms. Rallis for our own national anthem whilst Mr. Levin played that of the Kyrgyz Republic. We heard some folks singing along so now we know that there were Kryzyk people in the audience!

We came expecting a folkloric show but that angle presented itself only for a portion of the evening and that is the portion upon which we would like to focus.  We are entirely unfamiliar with the stringed instrument known as the komuz but the virtuosity displayed by its players took our breath away. We would have liked to tell which of the two beautiful performers listed in the program  played in the video we took just before intermission but we cannot. (The program failed us on other counts as well).

However, both of them played together in the second half and both Perizat Kopobaeva and Elvira Abdilova turned in exceptional performances.  They played this instrument over each shoulder, upside down, and sideways, never missing a beat.  Arms beat like the wings of a bird and chiffon sleeves floated like curtains in a breeze. An interesting feature of the komuz is the creation of harmonics which reminds us of our "dan bao" from Vietnam.

The rest of the program was also entertaining. Apparently The Kyrgyz Republic has produced some fine composers with names both difficult to spell and impossible to pronounce. Nowhere to be heard was a composition that was hard on the ears. The music was lovely and accessible to Western ears.

There was a third fine pianist on the program, the beautiful Kairy Koshoeva, seen above in a glamorous red gown. We enjoyed a composition entitled "Mash Botoi" or "Horse Race" which we were pleased to hear as the closing number of the evening--this time played by Mr. Levin with both komuz players adding to the fun. 

One of the highlights of the evening was Ms. Rallis' singing of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" and Ernest Charles' "When I Have Sung My Songs To You". Strangely, these American art songs were introduced as "folk songs". Of course, we could not tell the difference among the Kryzyk compositions, which ones were traditional and which ones not.  We are all for eliminating categories and just appreciating the music!

And that we did!  Some pieces were lyrical and melodic, others were staccato and propulsive, still others languorous. The variety of moods and colors were enjoyable, even when we could not understand the program (i.e. "Mash Botoi" was given the date of 1982 but the composer Atai Ogonbaev died in 1949. That is why we abandoned the program and just enjoyed the music.)

We will not close before crediting the lovely cellist Nurmira Greenberg who played a beautiful set accompanied by Mr. Levin on the piano. The set was all mid 20th c. but without any of the flaws we find in 20th c. music. There were also some improvisations by yet another pianist Joel Martin, an American with strong ties to The Kyrgyz Republic.

(c) meche kroop