MISSION

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

Monday, January 15, 2018

ST. PETER AND THE PEARLY GATES

Benedicte Jourdois and Michael St. Peter

Yes indeed! From the opening note of yesterday's recital at Manhattan School of Music, we were convinced that we had died and gone, surprisingly, to heaven.  A great recital will do that for us!

Tenor Michael St. Peter, now achieving his masters degree, has been on our radar screen for at least three years and we have reviewed his performances in both lieder and opera (all reviews archived and searchable). It is a rare artist who can perform equally well in both genres. It is our greatest pleasure to watch a young artist grow in stature and we have a very good track record at picking out those destined for stardom. He is one of them.

Singing is, of course, a highly competitive field; a beautiful instrument employed with artistry is almost enough but not quite. In the genre of lieder singing, there is another ingredient that is priceless to possess and heaven to behold--the ability to translate the feeling tone of the poet and of the composer such that the audience feels it as well. The singer and collaborative pianist (in this case the phenomenally gifted Benedicte Jourdois) take us on an emotional journey. They are our guides in an emotional landscape.

Mr. St. Peter and Ms. Jourdois opened the program with an unparalleled performance of Ludwig van Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte. As Mr. St. Peter informed us, this was the first song cycle written by a major composer and was completed in 1816. The subject of the cycle is sehnsucht, best translated as "longing". The text was written by Alois Jeitteles and prefigures German Romanticism and all the lovely songs by Schubert and Schumann that we so adore.

The poet is separated from his beloved for unknown reasons. Even when Spring arrives, they will not see one another, so it isn't Alpine snow that keeps them apart. We look for hints in the gorgeous melody and the classical harmonies but Jeitteles ain't tellin'. Perhaps the text is just symbolic of the unattainable.

Mr. St. Peter and Ms. Jourdois brought out every nuance of Beethoven's writing and the major/minor shifts were sensitively handled. We noted Mr. St. Peter's unforced tenor and perfect German on prior occasions. Every word was clear. He knew exactly what he was singing about and captured our rapt attention from the very first note. The mood was sustained throughout the interlude between songs. To say we were enraptured would be an understatement.

The succeeding Quatre Mélodies, Op.8 by Ernest Chausson were lovely gems of bittersweet nostalgia. The French diction was flawless and the long even lines were exactly what was missing in some French singing we reviewed a couple days ago. We observed a somewhat wider vibrato than we heard in the Beethoven which seemed just right for sad remembrances of lost love.

We were enchanted by the four songs selected from the cycle Venezia by Reynaldo Hahn which Mr. St. Peter performed in Venetian dialect. Of course the gondola makes its appearance in "La Barcheta" and the vocalise section was transporting. Mr. St. Peter pointed out that the work was premiered on a gondola in Venice with a piano and with Mr. Hahn himself. In "Che  pecà" the poet laments the loss of drama and passion in his love.  All this was conveyed with consummate musicianship and an effective partnership between the two artists.

We are quite sure that the three songs by Charles Tomlinson Griffes, setting of poems by Fiona Macleod, were just as artistically performed but we prefer our songs in any language but English.

The encore, Charlie Chaplin's "Smile" (though your heart is aching) was beautifully sung but we were so happy with the recital that an aching heart was the furthest condition from our reality! We are still basking in the joy we experienced and want to hold onto this feeling for as long as possible.

(c) meche kroop

Sunday, January 14, 2018

FELLOW TRAVELERS

Aaron Blake and Joseph Lattanzi  in Fellow Traveler (photo by Jill Steinberg)

Our disappointment in contemporary American Opera has been altered twice this year, once by The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs at Santa Fe Opera last August, and last night by Fellow Traveler, receiving its New York premiere by the Prototype Festival at John Jay College. How interesting that Kevin Newbury directed both operas! The production originated with the Cincinnati Opera.

Gregory Spears' music struck us as far more than "interesting", a word we use when we don't know what else to say! This music was luscious and accessible, underscoring the subtext and emotional content of each scene. Varying moods struck us, from erotic to sinister. George Manahan's conducting of the American Composers Orchestra was thoughtful and we were particularly impressed by the winds.

If the vocal lines were not "memorable", at least they were not irritatingly jagged. They sang well and an aria for the baritone stood out. We also loved the overlapping vocal lines for the ensembles.

Not having read the eponymous book by Thomas Mallon, we are not sure how much labor went into adapting it; Greg Pierce's libretto made sense and wisely kept to short punchy phrases which matched the music well in rhythm and length of phrase.

The story takes place in the McCarthy period--mid 20th c.--as remote to us as the periods in which our beloved 18th and 19th c. operas are set. This remoteness was not a problem in the relevance department since the crazy ideas which propel politics are still extant.  Every generation projects its fear and hate onto some group.  Then it was "commies" and "pansies".  Now it is immigrants.  Plus ca change...

The love affair between the young innocent reporter Timothy Laughlin and the charming but fickle State Department employee Hawkins Fuller began on a park bench with a not-so-subtle pickup. Rising star tenor Aaron Blake was as fine in his acting as he was in his singing. His character's internal conflict is the same one that has fueled opera stories (and stories in general) since forever. He has desires.  As an Irish Catholic, he believes them to be sinful. He goes to confession for awhile, then goes no more.

His Teflon seducer is the glib and careless "Hawk" (for which one can read "chicken hawk"-- and if you don't understand what that is, ask us to explain); barihunk Joseph Lattanzi used his gorgeous instrument and confident stage presence to give a complete portrait of a man who just can't commit. He is a perfect foil for the awkward and shy reporter; he uses his power to get Laughlin a job and then gets him fired in order to end the affair and earn Laughlin's hate.

Although the libretto is mainly "conversational", Mr. Lattanzi had a monologue toward the end which could stand alone as an audition or competition piece.  It was filled with mood and color as he expresses his inability to be the man Laughlin needs him to be.

In the role of the best friend Mary, we could not have asked for a better soprano than Devon Guthrie. Ms. Guthrie's singing and acting were exemplary and we totally believed her character, a good friend to all and a good woman who cannot abide the dirty dealing in the State Department.

Soprano Cecilia Violetta Lopez was excellent in the role of Lucy, the woman Fuller marries. As the irritating gossipy Miss Lightfoot, Alexandra Schoeny gave the audience a few chuckles.

Supporting roles were played by Vernon Hartman as Senator Potter, a war hero; by Marcus DeLoach in several roles; Christian Pursell in several roles; and Paul Scholten as Tommy McIntyre.

The story had a profound effect on us as a love story gone wrong; the situation politically only served to add to the effect. Here in New York we no longer think about gays being blackmailed and persecuted.  The term "commie" has lost its power. But it isn't lost on us that there are parts of the world where our freedoms have not yet arrived.  Probably there are pockets of fundamentalism in our very own country that suffer from the same predicament.  Let us not get lazy in our struggle for freedom for all citizens.  And for immigrants too!

Set designer Victoria "Vita" Tzykun employed some large moveable units in various arrangements; they became the roof of a post office or files in an office, as needed. Laughlin's tiny lodging comprised a narrow bed with a college pennant alongside and a hot plate for warming soup. This told us everything we needed to know about his situation in life.

Costuming by Paul Carey and Hair and Makeup Design by Anne Ford-Coates were appropriate to the 1950's and not particularly flattering. (Does any decade's fashion look good in retrospect?)

English diction was on the whole quite good, although there were times when we were happy to have the projected titles.

We ardently hope that contemporary American opera will move in the direction of good storytelling with accessible music and powerful emotional content. Bravi to everyone who contributed to this success.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, January 13, 2018

BELL BOOK AND CANDLE

Sarah Rothenberg and Nicholas Phan


The spare but effective setting for the New York Premiere of A Proust Sonata was designed by Marina Draghici (who also designed the costumes) and comprised stacks of books, a candle, and a bell by which legendary author Marcel Proust (effectively portrayed by Henry Stam) could summon his housekeeper and confidant Céleste (sympathetically portrayed by Nancy Hume).

The stage at French Institute Alliance Francaise was packed with talent for this musical theater piece presented by FIAF and Da Camera of Houston Productions. At the piano was Sarah Rothenberg, famed not only as a performer but as a writer and creator of music theater, uniting music, art, and literature.

Here, she has painted a portrait, so to speak, of Marcel Proust by using his own words from his epic literary masterpiece A la Recherche du Temps Perdu, as well as the memoir of Céleste Albaret. For this multimedia piece, she has employed evocative projections by Hannah Wasileski, and most importantly, music that  Proust mentioned in his work. Each scene utilized projections and music that rounded out the story telling.

A Proust Sonata deals with music and memory. The piece is divided into seven scenes, beginning with memories of childhood and ending with the famous recollection of the madeleine dipped in lime blossom tea.

In between we visited a belle-epoque salon at which Proust met his lover, the gifted composer Reynaldo Hahn, whose songs have delighted us on so many occasions.  At this point we heard tenor Nicholas Phan perform. We have enjoyed Mr. Phan on prior occasions and enjoyed his performance for the most part last night but with an exception. We love a long even Gallic line and don't care for pushing for volume at the upper end of the register.

We had no quibbles with the violin artistry of Boson Mo or the outstanding harmonies of the Daedalus String Quartet, particularly the sublime third movement of Beethoven's String Quartet in F Major, Op. 135, which accompanied the scene in which Proust describes a Vermeer painting.

Other scenes allowed Ms. Rothenberg to share her artistry at the piano with music by all our favorites--Chopin, Schumann, Debussy, Fauré, and Ravel.

Yesterday's review described a scene in which the singer has fallen in love with her iPod and we commented how each generation has its own means of listening to music. This performance illustrated Proust utilizing a device called a "theatrophone", a means which let Proust listen to performances of the Paris Opera by telephone!

Was his childhood  enjoyment of a "magic lantern" so different from today's children being amused on the internet? "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose"!

We were tickled to learn that Proust wrote all night long and slept all day!  And here it is after 6:00 AM and we are just finishing our review of this stunning gesamtkunstwerk (to coin a phrase). How impressed we are by scholarship translated into entertainment!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, January 12, 2018

SCORES BY THE "FOUR SCORES"

Nicole Thomas, Gregory Feldmann, Matthew Pearce, Kathryn Henry, Dominik Belavy, and Myka Murphy celebrating the 80th birthdays of William Bolcom and John Corigliano

It was quite a party, celebrating two elder "statesmen" of the music world with Steven Blier as host. New York Festival of Song collaborates annually with The Juilliard School for a special evening, giving graduate students of the Vocal Arts Department a chance to stretch themselves, cross some boundaries, and have some fun.

It was the fun numbers that we enjoyed the most. Take for example the closing number of the first part of the program which was devoted to the works of John Corigliano. The sure directorial hand of Mary Birnbaum was felt in "Liebeslied" when the simple repetition of the common phrase "I love you" was repeated in endless variety, each iteration carrying its own message as interpreted by various groupings of the six singers. For us, it was the highlight of the evening.

Similarly, the encore--William Bolcom's "Amor"--was performed by the ensemble, giving each woman an opportunity to revel in the fantasy of commanding the attention of an entire small town. We have often heard and enjoyed this song as an encore, but never heard it performed by a group!

Oh, those women!  Kathryn Henry lent her stunning soprano to "Otherwise" from Bolcom's Briefly it Enters; this is a simple song about the ephemeral nature of life and the fleeting nature of its bounty. Jane Kenyon's text was pithy and moving, and the piano accompaniment had a searching quality.

We also enjoyed the simplicity of her delivery in "Forever Young" from Corigliano's setting of text by Bob Dylan. Much of it was sung a capella or with minimal accompaniment and she made every word clear, which we truly appreciate.

Mezzo-soprano Myka Murphy grabbed the audience's attention and held it firmly from start to finish in "At the Last Lousy Moments of Love" from Bolcom's Cabaret Songs. All the bitterness of the text came through because of her clear enunciation; not a word was missed.

Mezzo-soprano Nicole Thomas was memorable in "Marvelous Invention" from John Corigliano's  Metamusic. It's been a long time since the iPod was the thing to own; each generation has its own way of listening to music but the threatened replacement of live music with "portable instant listening devices" is a hot topic. The prop was supplied by Steve Blier from his personal collection!

The singers were accompanied by Mr. Blier and by Chris Reynolds who never fails to delight. His piano perfectly limned the sound of chimes in "Chimes of Freedom", Corigliano's setting of text by Bob Dylan from Mr. Tambourine Man.

Getting to the men on the program, baritone Gregory Feldmann had the responsibility of singing the world premiere of Mr. Corigliano's song cycle Rhymes for the Irreverent. Our favorite among this group was "The Odds-on Favorite" which he performed with ample gesture and plenty of personality. "Critical" brought the challenge of a very low register which he met successfully. We loved his melismatic singing on the word "bloom" in "One Sweet Morning".

Baritone Dominik Belavy showed his acting chops several times in the evening. In "Dodecaphonia", Corigliano makes fun of 12-tone music and Mr. Belavy, suitably costumed, portrayed a detective tracking down the notorious "serial" criminal Twelve-Tone Rose. Mark Adamo's text was quite clever.

Tenor Matthew Pearce made a perfect permissive priest hearing the sexy confession of Nicole Thomas in "His Manner is Gentle" from Bolcom's Lucrezia. Accompanied by the fine guitarist Jack Gulielmetti, he sang "Soneto de la dulce queja" from Bolcom's Canciones de Lorca. We were glad that the got off the book for "El poeta llega a la Habana" with it's spirited rhythms which got the entire ensemble dancing.

The evening ended with a love fest among the singers and the venerable composers--lots of balloons and hugs and audience appreciation.  Another fabulous night at Juilliard!

(c) meche kroop


Thursday, January 11, 2018

FROM CHINA WITH LOVE

The Yu Bing Ensemble in "Warlord"--part of Shanghai Week (photo by Liming Guan)


A number of tempting events were planned this week as part of a festival--"Happy Chinese New Year--Shanghai Week"--and we were delighted to attend a performance of "Overlord" at the Asia Society on Park Avenue.  This work is a multi-media exploration of the life of the infamous and ruthless warlord of Western Chu, one Xiang Yu, who led rebel forces into battle against the Xin Dynasty over two millennia ago.

The piece utilized a dancer, a percussionist, and several players of string instruments that were just as thrilling as they were exotic to Western ears. The leader of the group, Yu Bing, seems to have a special relationship with his pipa, holding it in close embrace and plucking the strings gently or brutally according to which aspect of the legendary Xiang Yu's character was being given aural representation.

Similarly the bass drum contributed various complex rhythms with the same intention. The subtleties employed were impressive both by texture and dynamics.

The beautiful young woman who played a succession of bamboo flutes elicited dulcet tones that wove in and out of the musical textures.

Adding to the textural beauty was the Gu Zheng, a type of zither that we heard recently at another Chinese concert, and the Zhong Ruan, an ancient Chinese string instrument that is also plucked.

We would have loved to credit the individual players who brought so much beauty to our ears but no printed program was provided. Suffice it to say that this was a beautiful introduction to contemporary Chinese music. The piece premiered just a few months ago and was commissioned by the 19th China Shanghai International Arts Festival’s R.A.W (Rising Artists’ Works) program, a creative initiative to commission and present new works by bright young artists from across China.

There will be one more performance today at 3:00 at the Asia Society.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

MÉLODIE FRANÇAISE DE LA BELLE EPOQUE

Annie Rosen, Daniel Schlosberg, Michael Brofman, Kristina Bachrach, Dimitri Dover, Eric Jurenas, Michael Kelly, and Brad Balliett

We were wondering whether there were lovers of art song in Brooklyn before Michael Brofman established the Brooklyn Art Song Society. Watching the growth of B.A.S.S. over the past seven years hints at Mr. Brofman's dedication to producing an excellent series that has attracted an ever-increasing audience. Clearly, word has gotten out because last night the house was packed in spite of the arctic shiver in the air.

BASS' programs are always compelling and this season has been devoted to French mélodie. Last night's program focused on music of La Belle Époque, the half century prior to the First World War, a time when Paris was the center of culture, much of it avidly consumed by the bourgeoisie.

Opening the program was the engaging soprano Kristina Bachrach with Mr. Brofman himself at the piano, offering songs by Gabriel Fauré, each one a precious gem. Ms. Bachrach is a polished performer with great stage presence; she employed fine phrasing of Fauré's long Gallic lines and excellent French pronunciation, along with just the right amount of expressiveness.

We enjoyed the lively "Mandoline" which always makes us think of Fragonard's paintings, although he died before Verlaine wrote the text which was set by Fauré. We were less familiar with "Le Secret" with it's lovely text written by Armand Silvestre, here performed with great tenderness.

In "Après un rêve" Ms. Bachrach made good use of word coloration and dynamics to paint an aural portrait.  "Clair de lune" gave her the opportunity to show the brilliance of her upper register. "Les roses d'Ispahan" showed off Mr. Brofman's artistry in bringing out the exotic nature of the melody.

We were quite excited about hearing the marvelous baritone Michael Kelly who always astonishes us with the depth of his involvement with the material he sings.  But last night his being "on the book" severely impaired his involvement with the audience and left us cold. When this happens, our attention generally turns to the piano and this was a revelation.

Dimitri Dover, a pianist we have always enjoyed, was in top form limning Emmanuel Chabrier's arpeggi in "Chanson pour Jeanne".  His handling of the repeated chords in "Tes yeux bleus" with emphasis on each minor change clearly demonstrated Richard Wagner's effect on Chabrier.

We have long enjoyed Henri Duparc's setting of Charles Baudelaire's "L'invitation au voyage" but have never heard Chabrier's setting which involves the addition of the bassoon. We love the sound of this instrument and it was a treat for us to sit but six feet away. It was quite an experience, adding depth to the sonic tapestry.

Countertenor Eric Jurenas lent his lovely instrument to a quartet of songs by Reynaldo Hahn. We adore that fach and our companion, who generally does not, loved his performance as much as we did. Hahn's melodies stayed with us all night and are still spinning around in our brain. Hearing these songs sung by a different voice type was a special treat. Mr. Jurenas has a very appealing vibrato and just about the clearest French we have heard in a long while. Looking at the text was totally unnecessary; every word was understood.

Victor Hugo's text "Si mes vers avaient des ailes" is a song that depicts what songs do. Indeed, Mr. Jurenas' expressive voice gave wings to Hugo's verses. Another favorite of ours is "À Chloris" and Mr. Jurenas sang it as expressively as we have ever heard it and Mr. Brofman's piano brought out the turns that lend such interest to the simple melody.

The second half of the program comprised Hector Berlioz' group of songs "Les nuits d'été" with text by Théophile Gautier. Mezzo-soprano Annie Rosen and collaborative pianist Daniel Schlosberg partnered beautifully in these evocative songs. We have often heard Berlioz' orchestration of these songs but last night we heard the original piano and voice version.

We are not sure what the songs have to do with summer nights after the opening "Villanelle", a charming and tuneful song that produced images of Spring on the coldest night of the year (or perhaps the coldest night of the past several years). "Le spectre de la rose" expresses a gorgeous sentiment that Fokine used as inspiration for a ballet. (However, the choreographer used music by Carl Maria von Weber). Ms. Rosen's expressive singing brought the story to vivid romantic life with some hopeful upward leaps.

She used entirely different coloration for the sorrowful "Sur les lagunes" which employed the lovely lower register of her instrument. We thought "Absence" fit her voice perfectly and it wound up being our favorite song of this group. The closing song "L'ile inconnue" was most revealing of Ms. Rosen's personality. It was altogether a sublime performance.

(c) meche kroop