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.

Monday, October 30, 2017


Mark Markham, Leah Crocetto, and Zachary Nelson

Yesterday's torrential downpour did nothing to dissuade us and a hall full of fans from attending the first recital of this season's series at The Morgan Library--a celebration of the human voice produced in collaboration with The George London Foundation for Singers.  The Foundation presents the finest singers of the world's stages for us to enjoy in an intimate environment. They also hold an annual competition giving generous awards to rising vocal stars.

Although the superb collaborative pianist Mark Markham is world famous, this was our first hearing of his consummate and subtle artistry which is remarkable by virtue of not calling attention to itself. On the other hand, we have been thrilling to the vocal gifts of soprano Leah Crocetto and baritone Zachary Nelson for as long as we have been writing and even before.

Ms. Crocetto first captured our attention when we reviewed her performance as Anna in the rarely heard Rossini opera Maometto II. We were dazzled by her artistry in her New York recital debut at the Schimmel Center of Pace University when she used her plush instrument and embracing stage presence in the service of Strauss, Duparc, and Liszt.

Her performance as Donna Anna in Mozart's Don Giovanni was the highlight of the 2016 season at the Santa Fe Opera. All reviews are archived and accessible through the search bar.

Similarly, we have been following the meteoric rise of Mr. Nelson's star. He first came to our attention as an Apprentice Singer at the Santa Fe Opera. His first role there was that of Angelotti in Puccini's Tosca. They were just as impressed as we were, inviting him back to sing the role of Figaro in Mozart's Nozze di Figaro. He was just about perfect.

He delighted us with his comic side in Donizetti's Don Pasquale in which he sang the role of Dottore Malatesta. He continued his connection with the Santa Fe Opera last summer when we heard him as the detestable Enrico in Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

What a pleasure it is to document the growth and development of these two artists who complimented one another onstage at yesterday's recital!  What they have in common is a total commitment to what they are singing--and the ability to connect with the audience who can then share in their feelings.

But there are differences of approach, both valid. Ms. Crocetto is expansive in her presentation making ample use of gesture, whilst Mr. Nelson is self contained and employs gesture economically.

When the two came together for the penultimate scene of Verdi's Il Trovatore, their individual styles served them well and provided the highlight of the recital. In "Mira, d'acerbe lagrime" poor Leonora pleads Il Conte di Luna to spare the life of her lover Manrico. He is unmoved. Finally she offers her favors for his life. He is moved! But she, faithful to Manrico, swallows poison, in true 19th c. operatic fashion. 

It is quite a challenge to take a scene out of an opera and perform it convincingly, but this pair of artists succeeded brilliantly. We believed every minute and felt every feeling.

Individual performances were also superlative. We have previously reviewed Ms. Crocetto's artistry in Liszt's Petrarch Sonnets and find they suit her well. The obsessionality of Petrarch comes through loud and clear. There are some lovely arpeggi in the piano between the verses of "I vidi in terra angelici costumi".

We also enjoyed the Rachmaninoff songs, especially our favorite Russian song "Ne poy, krasavitsa, pri mnye" with its exotic mournful melody. In "Vokaliz, Op 34, No. 14" we were able to appreciate the warmth and purity of tone and the plethora of overtones that tickled our ears and filled the hall, wall to wall.

Mr. Nelson's individual choices suited his dramatic baritone well. The lower register of his voice seems to be deepening and expanding. Selections from Schubert's Schwanengesang mainly utilized the text of Heinrich Heine. We loved the major/minor shifts in "Das Fischermadchen". The cheeriness of this song yielded to the the grief of "Die Stadt" with the arpeggiated diminished 7th chord lending an eerie feeling.

The grimness of "Der Doppelganger" (just heard two days earlier at a Cantanti Project evening) gave way to the joy of "Die Taubenpost" with text by Johann Gabriel Seidl. Mr. Nelson's German was just about flawless.

Ralph Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel will never be among our favorites but we did enjoy "The Roadside Fire" and particularly admired Mr. Nelson's excellent diction, something we never take for granted when English is sung.

The final selection on the program was the delightful duet "If I Loved You" from Richard Rodgers' Carousel. When we think of American Art Song, this is what comes to mind, not what is coming out of conservatories. This relates to 20th c. American culture the way Schubert's oeuvre related to 19th c. German culture. Ms. Crocetto and Mr. Nelson performed it so charmingly and so vocally astute that we were swept away.

Both encores spoke to us in similar fashion. Mr. Nelson sang "Some Enchanted Evening" from Richard Rodgers' South Pacific so magnificently that our belief stated above was confirmed. In both cases, the lyrics of Oscar Hammerstein II partnered with Rodgers' music as Heine's did with Schubert's music.

Ms. Crocetto's encore was a very jazzy "Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man" from Jerome Kern's Showboat, with lyrics also by Oscar Hammerstein. Mostly, we don't enjoy "crossover" but this was a very special performance and just might change our minds about jazz. With an incredible artist like Ms. Crocetto bending those notes we were even more convinced of what Steven Blier is doing at his New York Festival of Song, mixing classical lieder with contemporary songs.

A good song is a good song.  And a great singer can make a good song great.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, October 29, 2017


Lachlan Glen and Ben Bliss at Mise en Scene Studios event

The gestation period for Mise en Scene Studios is a long one. There are excellent physicians and midwives in attendance. The embryo is healthy--viable and kicking. The nursery is well-furnished and friends and relatives are lined up to greet the newcomer. This love child will reflect the many gifts of its parents and will be quite different from any other--a unique offspring.

We have been present since the egg was fertilized and cannot wait to welcome the new opera company to its New York home. While we are waiting the parents have invited us to some baby showers, along with all the other citizens of Planet Opera who are just as excited as we are.

Last night, in a spacious loft in the East Village, we socialized with a great group of equally enthusiastic folk.  We dined on custom made pizza, we drank wine, we talked about music, we toasted the happy parents-to-be. And, most importantly, we heard some exciting music that gives us a taste of the quality we can expect from this nascent group.

Entertaining us royally were tenor Ben Bliss and collaborative pianist Lachlan Glen (both graduates  of the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program), along with soprano Leah Hawkins and The Verona String Quartet. Mr. Bliss has had a meteoric rise and sings at The Metropolitan Opera. Mr. Glen tours the world and captivates audiences everywhere as a solo star of the keyboard and as a collaborative pianist.

Soprano Leah Hawkins came to us from the Washington National Opera Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program. She is one of those big beautiful women with big beautiful voices. She performed two songs by Francis Poulenc, the first a 1938 setting of text written in 1912 by Wilhelm Kostrowicki (known as Apollinaire). Ms. Hawkins fine vibrato and word coloration made clear that the song "La grenouillere" (the Froggery) was about nostalgia for les temps perdus.

Her second offering was "Les chemins de l'amour" the 1940 setting of text by Jean Anouilh, which shared the nostalgic feeling and had a similar "old-fashioned" feeling as the first melodie, a quality that we treasure. Ms. Hawkins knows how to spin a decrescendo into a fine silken thread of sound.

The Verona String Quartet, comprising Jonathan Ong and Dorothy Ro, violins, Abigail Rojansky, viola, and Warren Hagerty, cello are all graduates of Juilliard and have achieved significant fame in the four years they have spent together. Residencies at Caramoor and at the New England Conservatory have been added to their graduate residency at Juilliard.

Last night we got a taste of their talent as they performed with Mr. Glen a most successful arrangement of an excerpt from Prokofiev's 1936 Romeo and Juliet, a suite for orchestra. It was so evocative that we couldn't keep from visualizing the ballet itself, which we love.

They also performed the second movement of Borodin's 1881 String Quartet No. 2 which was made popular by being "borrowed" for the 1953 musical Kismet. The writing is lush and melodic and is one of our personal favorites among so many string quartets.

Joined by Dominik Belavy and Alex Rosen for the "Laughing Trio", Mr. Bliss blissed us out with "Un aura amorosa" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte. He will be performing the role of Ferrando at The Metropolitan Opera this coming Spring and audiences will surely go mad for him. His ardent lyric tenor is perfectly suited to Mozart.

Mr. Glen then joined The Verona Quartet for the fiendishly difficult and spirited final movement of Brahms' Piano Quintet in G minor, following which the four strings gave us the first movement of Ravel's String Quartet which sounded just as anxious as the first movement of the Grieg which we heard a couple days earlier.

Not to worry because we were soothed by a duet from Franz Lehar's Die lustige Witwe. Mr. Bliss sang the role of Camille, persuading Valencienne (Ms. Hawkins) to join him in the little pavilion for a fond farewell. We were very glad to hear it in German!

The final offering was "This is My Night to Dream" by James Monaco and Johnny Burke, popularized by Nat King Cole. We thought the entire night was a dream!

Before we end, we would like to direct you to www.messnyc.com/membership. Did we tell you that YOU TOO can become a member of this vibrant and rapidly growing organization. A mere $99 for an entire year will give you admission to several evenings similar to the one we just described. This should keep all of us entertained and engaged until the opera season begins. That's the baby for which we are all waiting.

It is clear that those of us addicted to great music will find the quality we demand, whilst curious friends can be invited to share in the good fellowship, food, and drink and be introduced to the best the music world can offer in a relaxed and sociable environment. We do believe that the best way to get "newbies" on board is to offer quality.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, October 28, 2017


Cantanti Project creating Magic and Mayhem at Shapeshifter Lab

Once again, it is Halloween, our favorite holiday. Several performing groups have used the themes of Halloween to create unusual programs involving death (see yesterday's review of Death and the Maiden by Music Talks) and the supernatural. We wish we could clone ourself and attend them all!

Last night we trekked out to the farthest reaches of Brooklyn (was that the Gowanus Canal?) to share in Cantanti Project's celebration of Magic and Mayhem, which inaugurated the company's fourth season. The venue was the spacious Shapeshifter Lab and the informal nature of the table seating reinforced the values shared by many young companies. Intimacy of performance is paramount.

What struck us the most was the conception and realization of the theme which, we learned, was a collaborative effort. Familiar works, drawn from the worlds of opera, art song, and Broadway, were presented in dramatically novel ways that shed new light on them. At times, a singer was joined by other members of the cast who enacted silent roles.

At Music Talks, we just heard tenor Aaron Blake sing Schubert's lovely lied "Der Tod und das Madchen" in which he colored his voice to create both characters. But last night we heard two singers perform the work--soprano Sangying Li as the Maiden and mezzo-soprano Kirsti Esch as Death. Although the lied is brief, it magically became a dramatic scene.

Similarly, in Brahms "Walpurgisnacht", the queries of the child were sung by soprano Daniela DiPasquale whilst the responses of the mother were sung by soprano Lydia Dahling.

Ms. Dahling has become the source of a new interest for us. She sang a magnificent aria from an opera unknown to us by an equally unknown (to us) composer. The composer Ferenc Erkel was Hungarian and was the father of Hungarian opera. In wonderful 19th c. style, he set dramatic tales to luxurious music.

The aria we heard "Volt a vilagon ket kis madar" (sorry about the missing diacritical marks) is the lament of a woman who goes mad after the trauma of being raped by the Queen's evil younger brother, while her husband and the King are off fighting somewhere. The music has a distinct Magyar flavor and Ms. Dahling was superbly coached.  Not that we understand Hungarian; let's just say it sounded right. There were many changes of mood, all well realized by vocal coloration and acting skills.

We have reviewed mezzo-soprano Emily Hughes before and always enjoy her performances, especially in the title role of La Calisto at Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble. Last night, she made a fine Sandman, scattering sleepy-stuff over Hansel and Gretel in a scene from the Humperdinck opera.

She also delighted us with a performance of Ralph Vaughan Williams' "The Unquiet Grave" in which her fine diction made every word clear. In this scene, the ghost of her lover was visible to us as well as to her, in the person of baritone Frank D. Fainer.

Mr. Fainer was the sole male in the cast and performed a duet from The Phantom of the Opera, with Ms. Li as Christine. This is a show that we had never seen and we were glad to be introduced to the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical by such a fine performance.

We were quite taken with the elegant performing style of mezzo-soprano Tara Gruszkiewicz who performed Schubert's "Der Doppelganger" with excellent German and an eerie coloration. We've never heard the lied performed by a woman before but the performance was all the more affecting for being so still and self-contained.

Just the opposite was the highly gestural style of mezzo-soprano Aumna Iqbal in "Crude furie" from Handel's Serse sung by the eponymous Serse. This time, the Furies were real! Ms. Iqbal also performed "The Worst Pies in London" from Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd. The acting was commendable but, unfortunately, the clever lyrics were not consistently understandable.

It was a generous program, including works by Purcell, Verdi, Wolf, Duparc, Mozart and Mussorgsky. We always love hearing Jezibaba's aria "Cury mury fuk" from Dvorak's Rusalka which was sung by Ms. Esch. For those who are curious, the words are the Czech equivalent of "abracadabra".

Adding to the effectiveness were marvelous masks created by Claire Townsend and the perfect accompaniment provided by pianist Maria Didur. The only time we missed an orchestra was for the Hungarian aria and that was solely because we are curious about a new composer and wondered what his orchestration would sound like.

The projections curated by Laura Mitchell went a long way toward heightening the drama. Translations were occasionally included but, unfortunately, not when they were most needed.

We have just written that Monteverdi's 1609 Orfeo was the first opera but we stand corrected, having learned that Cantanti Project is tackling Caccini's Euridice, which premiered in 1600. We have already put it on our calendar for Feb 23, 2018 and so should you!  The insanely gifted director Brittany Goodwin will guide the cast through the underworld.

Many thanks to Artistic Director Joyce Yin for taking Cantanti Project in so many interesting and novel directions.

(c) meche kroop

Friday, October 27, 2017


Audrey Hayes, Mariya Polishchuk, Aaron Blake, Kallie Ciechomski, and Elad Kabilio

We are not at Carnegie Hall or Alice Tully Hall sitting with our hands folded in a row of somnolent obligatory attendees for two long hours, then puzzling over obscure program notes during intermission.  No! We are attending Music Talks at a roomy space called Interface on West 30th St. sitting in a comfortable armchair and listening to the exciting cellist/educator Elad Kabilio actually giving us demonstrations on the instruments of a string quartet, showing us what to listen for and getting us all excited about the program.

Mr. Kabilio's enthusiasm for his music, for his cello, and for educating and involving his audience members is completely contagious. His audience is on the young side and totally absorbed. What a different experience we are having of chamber music. Mr. Kabilio wants to break down the barriers between musicians and audience. We give him an A+.

The centerpiece of last night's program was the second movement of Schubert's String Quartet No. 14 in D minor, known as Death and the Maiden. This pillar of the string quartet repertory was composed in 1824 when the composer knew his death was certain. 

The theme of this movement was based on Schubert's 1817 lied "Der Tod und das Madchen, Op.7, No. 3" which was movingly sung by the famous tenor Aaron Blake immediately preceding the movement so that we could recognize the theme. Mr. Blake was successful at coloring the voice of the Maiden with anxiety, and that of Death with comfort. The poem was written by Matthias Claudius.

The movement is in the form of theme and variations. Mr. Kabilio demonstrated how the viola plays the obsessive ticking of the clock and how Schubert used the violins to create different moods whilst the cello repeated the theme, ensuring that each repetition of the theme felt different. Changes of mode from major to minor were clarified.

The program ended with a most unusual performance of Schubert's 1815 lied "Erlkonig, Op. 1". Instead of the customary piano accompaniment, we had an arrangement for string quartet by the wildly talented composer Dina Pruzhansky; it was filled with excitement. One could listen for the horse's hoofbeats and the strings augmented the mood.

A highlight for us was hearing from Mr. Blake the means by which he colored the voices of the frightened child, the father, and that of the wily Erlkonig. Of course, for the Narrator, he used his "normal" voice. He gave a demonstration of falsetto singing and how that tone is produced using just the edges of the vocal cords.

It was a perfect followup to last night's Monteverdi in that it was obvious that the text, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, shaped Schubert's music.

Also on the program was plenty more music of anxiety, this being Halloween week. Mr. Kabilio pointed out that Edvard Grieg's sole string quartet portrayed his own anxiety and frustration in tackling this musical form. The anxiety is revealed in the obsessive repetition of a motif. The strings are asked to produce double and triple stops. Grieg never wrote another string quartet!

Equally anxious and dissonant was the prelude from Bernard Hermann's Psycho Suite which set the tone for the Alfred Hitchcock film of the same name.

With all of that anxiety, it was a pleasure to hear Charles Gounod's "Funeral March of a Marionette" which was written to parody a music critic. If any composers are reading this and you wish to write a piece to parody this music critic, we would be delighted! 

We enjoyed the performances immensely but had one minor quibble. We bet readers will have anticipated the quibble. We so wanted Mr. Blake to abandon the score! He is primarily an opera singer but anyone who wishes to enter the world of lieder recital had best learn to leave the book behind. If one can commit an entire role to memory it shouldn't be out of reach to learn a few songs.

If you are heavily invested in hearing an entire work in toto, you might not enjoy Mr. Kabilio's Music Talks. But if you would like to see what's "under the hood" and expand your appreciation, these evenings are for you. The next time we hear any of the above works we will surely have reached a new level of understanding.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, October 26, 2017


Ryan Brown, Elizabeth Field, Liv Redpath, Lea Desandre, Kristen Dubenion-Smith, Patrick Kilbride, Alex Rosen, Thomas Dunford Jean Rondeau, and Beiliang Zhu (photo by Louis Forget)

We always look forward to visits from Opera Lafayette.  One can count on them to bring stellar musicians to perform in stimulating and unusual programs-- with the added bonus of an introductory lecture.  Last night at City University of New York's Elabash Recital Hall (an excellent venue), we heard a fine lecture on Claudio Monteverdi by Columbia University professor Giuseppe Gerbino, who put into academic words something we have written about frequently.

We are referring to the union of text and music, something which very few contemporary composers seem to grasp. Each language has acoustic properties and a rhythm. In Monteverdi's case, his music imitated the content and expressiveness of Italian, which is of course an easier language to set than English! This becomes both semantic and emotional. In simple words, the language of the text is enhanced by music.

Monteverdi's music bridged the orthodox polyphony of the 16th c. Renaissance period with the up and coming Baroque period of the 17th c. He was truly a pioneer and his 1609  Orfeo can be considered the first opera. He is mostly remembered for that and for the subsequent operas Il ritorno d'Ulisse in patria and L'incoronazione di Poppea.

Perhaps someday the music for L'Ariana will be discovered in someone's ancient library but, at present, all we have left from that opera is "Lamento d'Ariana"  which was superbly sung by mezzo-soprano Lea Desandre.  Poor Ariana goes through a succession of emotions and Monteverdi's music limned every one from pleading for Teseo's return to anger to self-pity.

Another astonishing work was the scene "Il combattimento di Tancredi et Clorinda" in which the unwary Tancredi, sung by the terrific tenor Patrick Kilbride, battles his unrecognized Clorinda, sung by the superb soprano Liv Redpath. It is not until she is dying that the armor comes off and he recognizes her. If this did not move you, nothing would! The work was staged which added to the effect. Jean Rondeau's organ raised the stakes even higher.

The lovely Ms. Redpath showed her vulnerable side in "Lamento della ninfa" with three male voices (Mr. Kilbride, baritone David Newman, and bass Alex Rosen) serving as a Greek chorus commenting on her fate. The performance of Guest Musical Director Thomas Dunford on the archlute was particularly fine here, adding to the sonorities. The archlute is a magnificent instrument that looks somewhat like a theorbo but please don't ask us to explain the difference!

Ms. Redpath and Ms. Desandre created stunning harmonies in the duet "O come sei gentile caro augellino" with ear tickling birdsong. The same pair delighted with "Ohime dov'e il mio ben". Both duets came from Monteverdi's Seventh Book of Madrigals.

The pieces for tutti were similarly remarkable. A setting of Petrarch's "Hor che'l ciel" began on one tone and expressed the peace and silence of nature.  As the poet describes his warlike nature, Monteverdi's writing becomes agitated and complex.

Other participants who added so much to the musical texture were alto Kristen Dubenion-Smith, the violins of Artistic Director Ryan Brown and Elizabeth Field, violist Paul Miller, cellist Beiliang Zhu, and bassist Doug Balliett.

We left the concert with a renewed appreciation for this titan who broke the rules and brought music to a higher level. We wish more of his music had survived the centuries.

(c) meche kroop


Saturday, October 21, 2017


Jose Heredia, Dilara Unsal, and Jonathan Green (photo by Nathan Hull) in Tosca

Every small opera company in New York occupies a different niche and we value Amore Opera for bringing the classics up close and personal while utilizing a full orchestra. Some operas belong on the stage of The Metropolitan Opera and some seem to demand a more intimate venue. We never thought so about Tosca but last night's experience demonstrated what a very personal story this is.

We were asking ourselves what is so special about Tosca that we never tire of it. First of all, Puccini's work is so melodic that the tunes dance around one's head long after one leaves the opera house, and his orchestrations are lavish. The libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa is filled with romantic and political passion--so refreshing in the current era of irony; the story was adapted from an earlier play by Sardou.

The opera had a difficult conception with lots of turmoil but somehow the conflicts got resolved and we were left with a work of astonishing power and a straightforward arc from start to finish without the longueurs that plague some other operas. One dare not snooze in Tosca, not even for a minute.

Furthermore, the opera offers three starring roles that allow great singers the opportunity to show their vocal and dramatic chops. Opening night of Amore Opera's production took place in the comfortable Riverside Theater and put three superlative singers onstage. There are alternating casts for tonight's performance and for the Sunday matinee and the production will go onstage next week Wednesday through Sunday. We looked over the casting and feel comfortable recommending all of them, having recognized singers of whom we hold a high opinion.

But let's talk about last night. In the title role, soprano Dilara Unsal was in full command of her prodigious talents--a sizable soprano with great power to cut through Puccini's dense orchestration, and a total commitment to her character. She was every inch a diva, self-possessed and demanding of attention and adoration--but also very loving and devoted to her man. Caught in Scarpia's net, she sang "Vissi d'arte" as finely as we've ever heard.

In the role of the painter Mario Cavaradossi, tenor Jose Heredia used his fine instrument well, creating a warm and full-throated sound without the pushing that bothers us in so many young tenors. He begins the opera as a carefree young man in love, delighting us with "Recondita armonia". Then he must mollify the jealous Tosca with a beautifully rendered aria "Qual'occhio al mondo".

He must then cope with his panic stricken friend Angelotti (portrayed by bass Kofi Hayford) who has just escaped from prison. Then he must deal with cross-examination and torture ordered by the evil Scarpia and his anger at what he believes to be Tosca's betrayal. And finally he must deal with a premature death.  "E lucevan le stelle" was sung with great depth of feeling.

Tosca's arrival at the prison has him praising her tenderly with "O dolci mani". All of these emotional shifts were captured by Mr. Heredia with vocal coloration and dynamic variation.

With his excellent baritone, Jonathan Green made a persuasive Scarpia, the man we love to hate. Scarpia is one of the most loathsome characters in the operatic canon. He uses his political power to intimidate and force himself on Tosca. (We think of the current Harvey Weinstein scandal in Hollywood. Plus ca change plus c'est la meme chose.) When Tosca stabs him and cries "Mori, mori", we smile with satisfaction.

Tenor Marc Khuri-Yakub made a believable Spoletta, acting on Scarpia's orders and taking his abuse. Bass Trey Sandusky performed the role of Sciarrone, Scarpia's orderly.

Baritone Gennadiy Vysotskiy added some humor in Act I, portraying the judgmental and devout Sacristan of the church in which Cavaradossi is doing his painting.

Isabella Reichenbach was inaudible as a young shepherd.

Which brings us to the issue of the orchestra.  The Riverside Theater is a comfortable theater but the orchestra "pit" is not exactly sunken and only the strong voices of the principals were consistently audible. Maestro Richard Cordova did his best to control the volume but Puccini's orchestration is dense. The brasses came on strong in the beginning and we enjoyed the work of the winds and percussionist. But oh, those strings! There were significant problems with intonation.

Direction by Nathan Hull was as apt as ever. Costume Design by Cynthia Psoras was a propos. The opera is set exactly a century before it was written, at the time of the turn of the 18th c. when Napoleon was returning to take over the papal province of Rome from the Neapolitans. The Empire costuming seemed just right.

Sets were probably left over from the days of Amore's predecessor, Amato Opera; they seemed shopworn but served the purpose. We came for the singing which was glorious, not for the sets.

Although Amore Opera is famous for its productions of the classics, we would be remiss if we did not mention La Zingara, a rarely produced opera by Donizetti which we absolutely loved last Spring during its American premiere! (The review is archived and available through the "search bar".) There will be a reprise on October 24 and a matinee on October 28th. If you missed your chance last season, now's your chance for a fun evening which balances the Puccini tragedy quite well.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, October 19, 2017


Chris Reynolds, Yoon Lee, Natalia Katyukova, Jessica Niles, Nathaniel LaNasa, Kady Evanyshyn, Jacob Scharfman, Anneliese Klenetsky, and Ji Yung Lee

We really missed the Liederabend programming at Juilliard over the summer and are happy to note that the program got off to a stellar start yesterday with a magnificent program, curated and coached by Natalia Katyukova, accompanied by Chris Reynolds, Yoon Lee, and Ji Yung Lee. Over the past few years we have watched the audience grow from a smattering of lieder lovers to a throng. This fame is well deserved. One could not have found a better recital at any price.

It was admirable that each of the four featured singers took the stage with confidence, introduced her/himself, and told enough about their chosen work so that we in the audience could appreciate their involvement. We wish more recitalists did the same. A singer of lieder is a conduit through which the poet speaks and the composer resounds. Their individual interpretations can give new life to familiar works or introduce us to material that may be new to us.

Mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn opened the program with five lovely songs by Clara Schumann. This is a composer who speaks  (sings) to us with Austrian Romanticism in full flower. Readers know how much we love melody! It was obvious from the first note that Ms. Evanyshyn loves Clara's music as much as we do. We are always elated to see her somewhat overlooked oeuvre on a program.

The wise choice of text goes halfway toward making a memorable song. Heinrich Heine's text is almost always a great choice. "Ich stand in dunklen Traumen" is a mournful tale of love and loss while "Sie liebten sich beide, doch keiner" is a more ironic story of love never realized--perhaps an even greater loss.

"Die Lorelei" is one of Heine's horror stories and allowed Ms. Evanyshyn and her collaborative pianist Ji Yung Lee the opportunity to indulge in totally different coloration with the rippling in the piano suggesting the waves and both artists conveying a sense of urgency.

It was a welcome relief to hear the peaceful "Der Mond kommt still gegangen". The final selection was "Am Strande", a German translation of Robert Burns' poem "Musing on the roaring ocean".

Ms. Evanyshyn has a lovely and gracious stage presence, using only minimal gesture and allowing the text and musical phrasing to shine through. She never allows her gifts to steal attention from the music.

Next on the program was soprano Anneliese Klenetsky with Chris Reynolds as collaborative pianist. She too introduced herself with grace and enthused about her discovery that Benjamin Britten set some Russian text. This was a discovery for us too and we found the songs as unsettling as Ms. Klenetsky did. The text for this cycle, The Poet's Echo, was written by one of Russia's preeminent poets Alexander Pushkin. The cycle struck us as the cry of despair from being unheard.

The performance was superb and Ms. Klenetsky captured the inherent drama with a self-possessed maturity and conveyed the mood of these non-pretty songs. Our favorite was "Angel" in which the gentleness of an angel overcomes the sullenness of Satan. 

In "The nightingale and the rose" we loved the way Mr. Reynolds captured the song of the nightingale on the piano. In "Lines Written During a Sleepless Night" the melody wanders in a searching manner the way an insomniac searches for sleep.

We love the sound of Russian and our love grows the more we become familiar with its sound. We would have to say that we enjoy Rachmaninov more than Britten and soprano Jessica Niles began by telling the audience how she chose these songs for their imagery and, indeed we could see through her eyes and hear through her voice.

We think it made quite a difference that she translated the songs herself since she seemed to know exactly what she was singing about, giving each phrase a sense of movement toward the "goal note". These are luscious songs and each one carries a mood of its own, all well captured by Ms. Niles and Yoon Lee, her collaborative pianist.

"At Night in My Garden" tells of a willow whose tears will be wiped away by the tresses of the poet. Such a tender picture! All sadness disappeared with the joy of "The Daisies". There is unmistakeable charm in "The Pied Piper" whom we wanted to follow. "Dream" was filled with wonder and was a fine antidote to Britten's song about insomnia!

Bringing the program to a stunning close was baritone Jacob Scharfman who introduced the songs of Erich Korngold and told of Korngold's birth in Austria and his success as a composer of music for film in Hollywood. Strangely, this was news to us since we always thought of him as the composer of the opera Die Tote Stadt! The songs were written by Korngold when he was still a wunderkind in his native Austria. Mr. Scharfman shared with the audience the reason for his choice; his forebears were also Austrian Jews.

The songs have an Early 20th c. feel and some of the lavishness of Richard Strauss. Mr. Scharfman also did much of his own translation. "Reiselied" is a most cheerful and energetic song of optimism, a setting of text by Joseph von Eichendorff, one of our favorite poets for lieder. "Osterreichischer Soldatenabschied" allowed shifts of mode from the piano of the wonderful Nathaniel LaNasa which were reflected vocally by Mr. Scharfman.

Perhaps our favorite was "Nachts" which conveyed a mysterious and elusive mood, emphasized by a repetitive motif in the piano involving alternation of a whole step, much slower than a trill. The program ended with "Versuchung"--a rather puzzling text.

Mr. Scharfman's performance was marked by the expansiveness of a generous spirit and a personal involvement with the text and music. There was a lovely resonance to his instrument and fine German diction.

All in all it was a delightful treat to hear such fine artistry. One could not have heard better at any price. If you haven't attended a Liederabend at Juilliard, you owe it to yourself to enjoy such a treat. But be advised that tickets are free and can disappear rapidly.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, October 18, 2017


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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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