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

Wednesday, January 31, 2018


Renée Fleming and Lindsay Mecher
The Song Continues 2018

Renée Fleming Master Class

The Marilyn Horne Legacy at Carnegie Hall

(All photos by Richard Termine)

The Song Continues will continue with Renée Fleming at the helm.
Boya Wei and Ms. Fleming

 What we observed at her master class last week reassured us that the program is in excellent hands.

Ms. Fleming's master class was fascinating for the audience and participants alike.  The audience got to see how much hard work goes into taking a song from an "8" to a "9".

Cameron Richardson Eames and Brea Marshal

Each participant received a highly personalized set of tools with which to work, some of which will improve their singing in general and others which were specific to a particular song.

We liked the way she asked each young singer to introduce herself and to tell why she chose a particular song. In nearly every case, the choice had particular value for the singer and informed her performance.

So many of the practice techniques could be picked up and used by the numerous singers who were in the audience. We personally had never heard of vocalizing through a drinking straw but were impressed about how successful it was in achieving a pianissimo in the upper register.

Another tip was to vocalize with a pencil between the upper and lower teeth. One singer, bothered by tightness in the tongue was helped by vocalizing with her tongue stretched way out.

A good way to convey the meaning of a song was to recite the text in colloquial English and then to sing it.

Students who ignored the composers markings gained a great deal by exaggerating the markings. Often, when they thought they were exaggerating, it sounded just right to our ears!

Young singers tend to put too much effort into their singing and they were shown how to lighten up.  Not every word is important and the singer should not give it all up at the beginning but rather must save something for the important word in a phrase.

A lieder is like a 3-minute opera and the singer must tell a story.

Soprano Brea Marshall opened the program, accompanied by Cameron Richardson-Eames. Ms. Fleming worked with her on bringing out the nostalgia and eroticism of Joseph Marx' "Selige nacht". We have always wondered why Marx' lovely songs are not heard on more recital programs!

In Ricky Ian Gordon's setting of Emily Dickinson's "Will there really be a morning", some playfulness is called for and each questioning phrase needed a different value.

Soprano Boya Wei was accompanied by Christina Giuca and performed the lovely "Apparition" by Debussy.  She was encouraged to "taste" the French. This reminded us of performances we have thrilled to in which the singer did seem to savor the flavor of the language being sung.

Ms. Fleming urged her to take the risk of floating the high note. Here's where the drinking straw technique came in handy as a means of practicing.

Mezzo-soprano Lindsay Mecher followed with Richard Strauss' "Befreit" in which pianist Richard Jeric produced some wonderful arpeggi. Ms. Mecher was urged to say something instead of trying to create a sound. In facing a challenging vowel, the tongue exercise was used to get the muscle tension out of the way.

This is an incredibly difficult song and the singer must listen for the harmonic changes and establish a feeling of intimacy.  Breath control is very important here and it is helpful to substitute resonance and color for over-breathing.

Soprano Isabella Moore, accompanied by Andrew King, worked on Richard Strauss' "Ruhe, meine Seele".  The portentous piano seemed to create the storms  of the soul and the singer can paint a picture of the calming elements of nature.

It seems to us that with master teachers like Ms. Fleming and with talented and hard working young singers, the future of art song is promising.

As we mentioned in our last review, Marilyn Horne has devoted a lifetime to championing the art of the song. Ms. Fleming seems to be the perfect choice to carry the mission forward.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, January 29, 2018


Warren Jones, Martin Katz, Nicole Cabell, Susanna Phillips, Beste Kalender, Isabel Leonard, Marilyn Horne, Leonardo Capalbo, Russell Thomas, Lester Lynch, and Edward Parks

Music lovers from all over the world come to Carnegie Hall every January for The Song Continues. This year is Marilyn Horne's last year as artistic advisor; the celebration was a bittersweet one in which singers she has fostered heaped gratitude upon her but also shed some tears as well, as did members of the audience. Anyone who loves the art of the song owes a huge debt to Ms. Horne for going the full mile to see that this art form survives.

We ourselves have attended The Song Continues for the past 15 years at Carnegie Hall. Before then we heard her young singers at St. Bartholomew's Church and before that at the Kosciuszko Foundation. We have lost count of all the incredibly talented singers to whom she has introduced us. But we will be eternally grateful to her for her devoted service to the field.

For yesterday's celebration, eight splendid singers graced the stage of Zankel Hall and performed a program that only hints at the scope of art song; it held the audience spellbound for a good two hours, or should we say a wonderful two hours.

If there were one quality all the singers had in common it was the ability to inhabit a song and turn each one into what Renée Fleming, in her master class of the prior day, called a "3-minute opera". These singers were all storytellers and did not rely solely upon their vocal gifts to entertain us. Rather, they used their artistry to pull us into the world of the poet and that of the composer.

Opening the program was mezzo-soprano Beste Kalender who used facial expression and ample gesture to carry us to Reynaldo Hahn's Venice. She chose three selections from his Venezia. We loved the romantic "La barcheta" for its stunning vocalise and "Che peca!" for its wry humor. The songs were sung in Venetian dialect and delighted us thoroughly.

Leonardo Capalbo has always tantalized us with his garlic-infused tenor and yesterday he introduced us to a trio of songs by Pietro Mascagni; we always love hearing songs that have been undeservedly neglected on concert programs. There was a lovely pianissimo in "Serenata" which was matched by pianistic delicacy on the part of the peerless Warren Jones whose artistry supported the four singers on the first half of the program. Mr. Capalbo invested the songs with dynamic variety.

Baritone Edward Parks, whose performance of the role of Steve Jobs in The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs was so completely honest and believable, performed three songs by Charles Ives. "In the Alley" is a wry look at an unrequited infatuation-- and a lot of fun. Not so much fun was "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" which made us feel as if we were missing something. "Berceuse", on the other hand, showed off the lovely soothing quality of his instrument.

Closing the first half of the program was the lovely Susanna Phillips whose soprano always gives us pleasure and whose interpretations are always spot on. She gave us three songs by Richard Strauss. "Muttertänderlei" is a cute song about an overly proud mother whose child is, of course, exceptional. The passionate "Cäcilie" was given an enthusiastic reading, but it was "Morgen" that brought us to our knees. Mr. Jones took a slower tempo than usual and played with an ethereal delicacy that created an otherworldly mood, causing us to question our assumptions about the text. We love an interpretation that shows us something new! Ms. Phillips' singing sustained the mood.

For the second half of the program, Martin Katz took over as collaborative pianist. Soprano Nicole Cabell chose three selections by three different composers to show off three different styles. "Del cabello más sutil" is perfumed with sensuousness and comes from Fernando Obradors' Canciones clasicas españolas; it contains some marvelous melismatic writing, beautifully negotiated by Ms. Cabell. Henri Duparc's "Chanson triste" created a tender mood, and Ricky Ian Gordon's "Joy" gave the singer an opportunity to be more expansive. Ms. Cabell shows a deep understanding of what she is singing about.

Lester Lynch has a big baritonal sound that we almost called baronial. There is so much power there that Mr. Katz could pull out all the stops without holding back. The voice is well suited to Schubert's "Gruppe aus dem Tartarus" and to Barber's "I hear an army"; but we preferred the tenderness he exhibited in Brahm's "Wie bist du, meine Königen", a lovely romantic tribute.

Tenor Russell Thomas opened his set with Stefano Donaudy's familiar ode "O del mio amato ben", causing us to look at his bio to make sure he is a tenor. It sounded great but not nearly as tenorial as his performance of two Tosti songs which followed--"Non t'amo più" and "L'alba sepàra dalla luce l'ombra"--a memorable performance indeed.

The program ended with the matchless mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard singing a heartfelt rendition of "Take Care of This House" from Bernstein's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Of course the song is about The White House which could use some care right now, but we also took it to mean caring for Carnegie Hall, our cultural house.  She also sang "Greeting" from Arias and Barcarolles but when she got to the final selection "Somewhere" from West Side Story, she asked the audience to sing along with her--a capella!

There were two notable encores: Warren Jones dedicated his amazing arrangement of Stephen Foster's "Beautiful Dreamer" (one of her signature songs) to Ms. Horne and the entire cast raised their voices in tribute. We have never appreciated the song so dearly!

Mr. Katz also contributed an encore, Richard Strauss' "Zueignung".

We do not want to leave our readers thinking that Ms. Horne is retiring or anything that unbelievable.  Although Renée Fleming will take over the helm of The Marilyn Horne Legacy at Carnegie Hall, Ms. Horne will likely stay involved. Similarly, Ms. Horne is retiring as director of the voice program at Music Academy of the West but will stay involved there as well. When you are that large and generous a personality, you just can't stop giving!

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, January 27, 2018


Jacob Scharfman, Onadek Winan, William Guanbo Su, Dominik Belavy, Kathryn Henry, Meghan Kasanders, John Chongyoon Noh and Maestro Yannick Nézet-Séguin (photos by Claudio Papapietro)

Yesterday's Master Class at Juilliard was somewhat of a departure from the typical master class for singers. The audience was welcomed by Brian Zeger, Artistic Director of the Vocal Arts Department. He prepared observers by saying that this would not be a one-on-one event with an individual getting coaching on a prepared aria. It would be a renowned conductor (Music Director elect of the Metropolitan Opera) teaching Juilliard Singers how to perform in an ensemble.

The Maestro is a highly engaging presence, filled with humor as well as prodigious artistic knowledge and experience; it was deeply satisfying to witness how the students trusted his judgment and followed his suggestions.

The highlight of the class was the septet from Act I of Mozart's Don Giovanni. This highly elaborate piece of writing makes different demands on each singer. Each character has a different intention.

Donna Anna (soprano Meghan Kasanders) and her intended Don Ottavio (tenor John Chongyoon Noh) are praying for divine protection in "Protegga il giusto cielo". The maestro suggested more direction from Ms. Kasanders. Donna Elvira (soprano Kathryn Henry) needed more "fire".

The rapid-fire duet between Don Giovanni (baritone Dominik Belavy) and Leporello (bass William Guanbo Su--being reviewed for the third time this week!) was greatly improved when the two of them got in rhythm and in tune with each other. 

Zerlina (soprano Onadek Winan) needed to exhibit repressed anger. Masetto (baritone Jacob Scharfman) was helped to get into character and coached to put different colors and emphasis on the repeated "Va bene!".

We confess that we were happy with the first run through but after hearing the improvements we were thrilled. The gifted pianist Michal Biel can always be counted on to accompany skillfully.

We also got to hear two different singers perform the roles of Donna Anna and Don Ottavio in their first act duet "Ma qual mai s'offre oh Dei...Fuggi crudele, fuggi". Their voices were magnificent! They were coached to trust Mozart's dynamics (didn't we just hear that at last night's master class?). Jinhee Park did her customary fine accompaniment on the piano.

Subtle changes can make a big difference and we agree with the maestro that the singer must draw people in. Much of the work was on using the breath to amplify the gestures.  Used judiciously, it can be used to highlight emotional breathlessness.

We also enjoyed the coaching for the marriage scene from Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. Soprano Tamara Banješević was encoouraged to be an excited 14 year old girl. The entire scene needed to be more intimate and less "ceremonial".  Vocal colors were encouraged to avoid a "four square" sound. Too many singers establish a color and then abandon it too soon. 

Bass Alex Rosen made a fine Friar Lawrence and tenor James Ley did well as Roméo with mezzo-soprano Myka Murphy portraying Gertrude. Art Williford accompanied beautifully.

The class closed with some questions from the audience and some general remarks from the maestro about how exceptional vocal and language preparation allows the singer the freedom to personalize his/her performance. The result is the alignment of heart and mind. We couldn't agree more!

(c) meche kroop

Friday, January 26, 2018


Master Teacher Graham Johnson

What Graham Johnson doesn't know about the art of the song would fit in a thimble.  How can one distill such wisdom into a few paragraphs! 

Last night's master class was part of The Song Continues 2018, a festival celebrating the art of the vocal recital.  For the past twenty years we have been enjoying this festival initiated by the the Marilyn Horne Foundation and now presented by the Weill Music Institute, as part of the Marilyn Horne legacy at Carnegie Hall.

With his plummy British accent Mr. Johnson shared his vast experience with four young singers. From our standpoint, the most interesting information regarded the differences of style necessary to do justice to Mozart, Schubert, Schumann, Wolf, and Brahms. All of the selections offered were sung in German and we are pleased that all of the students sang in fine German, with only an occasional lapse in the area of the final "ch".

Regarding the final singer on the program, superb mezzo-soprano Siena Licht Miller had the benefit of a German-speaking mother and was thereby so at ease with the language that she was able to devote her attention elsewhere, giving a splendid performance of two songs by Brahms.

Unlike the obsessive attention to markings by Hugo Wolf, Brahms took a freer approach and left much to the artistry of the singer in terms of rubato and spontaneous shaping. Ms. Miller's collaborative pianist Richard Jeric was encouraged to produce more effulgence in the accompaniment. The texts dealt with unrequited love and the freedom sounded just right.

Two songs by Hugo Wolf were performed by the splendid soprano Devony Smith, accompanied by Christina Giuca. The pair worked well together in these settings of texts by Goethe from Wilhelm Meisters Lehrjahre. Indeed, Mr. Johnson brought with him a book of that epoch that contained inserts of the songs! He marked this book as one that strongly influenced German literature of the 19th c.

Wolf's music, as opposed to the gentle Schubert setting, portrays Mignon in all her high strung glory, an innocent creature abused and betrayed, as vulnerable as Ophelia in Hamlet.  Mr. Johnson saw this portrayal of psychological trauma as an anticipation of the discoveries of Freud. He is as well informed about literature and history as he is about music!

Ms. Smith captured this near madness and vulnerability very well; having translated the songs herself contributed to her ability to convey the feelings of Goethe's text. We particularly enjoyed the pianistic artistry of Ms. Giuca.

Hannah Rose Kidwell has a sizable soprano instrument with an interesting vibrato that makes one sit up and take notice. Her selections were by Robert Schumann whose composition of lieder took off along with his romance with Clara. There were many opportunities for variations of color in his "Widmung" (text by Rückert) which needs to be sung with intimacy, as if directed toward only one person, not the entire audience.

The tessitura is low for a soprano but Ms. Kidwell handled it well. Mr. Johnson made a good case for humility before the text and encouraged the pianist Andrew King to set the stage for the singer. He made a good point that vocal color comes from the imagination. Justinus Kerner's text for "Stille Tränen" tells us about the inner sadness of those who seem happy on the outside. This is a very different song from "Widmung"!

Songs by Mozart and Schubert made up the remainder of the evening. Mr. Johnson wants to hear Mozart with very little pedal and then, only for color.  "Abendempfindung" is profound and the color must be one of regret and acceptance, not bombastic tragedy. It should not be romanticized.

Mezzo-soprano Veronika Anissimova was accompanied for her performance by Cameron Richardson Eames, who was coached to keep the piano light when accompanying a light voice. It takes discipline to know what not to include in a performance.  One might say "less is more".

Schubert's "Im Frühling" actually follows a "theme and variations" model. The mood of regretful acceptance is quite similar to the Mozart. The performance needed to be bigger without being louder. More energy and more confidence were called for.  

Some general remarks by Mr. Johnson are well worth remembering.  In the performance of art song, the text takes precedence. The singer must emphasize human understanding and compassion for the human condition. The singer must be a spokesperson for the poet and foster a conjunction of the text and the music. Each poet and each composer is different.

There is no conductor to obey in this art form. The singer must make a full investment and maintain ownership of the performance, whilst exchanging energy with the pianist. The performance must be in the service of the poet and the composer. This requires empathy with the past. The singer is filtering the words and the music through the self.

As we reflect back on lieder performances that have grabbed us by the throat and made us feel the full range of human feeling, we must acknowledge that the singer seemed but a conduit and we experienced the text as speaking directly to us in the most intimate fashion.

This must be the most difficult art form!

There will be another master class tonight so stay tuned.  No doubt Renée Fleming will have a very different but equally valuable approach.

(c) meche kroop

Wednesday, January 24, 2018


Minjung Jung and Ji Yung Lee at uilliard Morse Hall

Last night was a chance for Ji Yung Lee to shine with dual artistry. She appeared first as a singer, offering three selections from Richard Strauss' Mädchenblumen in which the text compares different flowers to different types of women. This is an opportunity for the singer to exhibit different colors and moods, which this lovely soprano had no difficulty achieving.

Her bright soprano sounded beautiful in the upper register, but we could best appreciate her facility with German in "Epheu" which has a lower tessitura.  Our only complaint was the use of the music stand. This loathed piece of stage furniture was used for the entire recital, to our dismay. The collaborative pianist for the Strauss was the excellent Minjung Jung.

For the remainder of the program, Ms. Lee served as collaborative pianist; it would be an understatement to say that we are impressed when an artist can do justice to two fields. 

Her accompaniment of bass William Guanbo Su was excellent; she has a real feel for Brahms. We confess to a certain antipathy for this composer's  Vier Ernste Gesänge largely due to their pious nature. The Bible comes in last in our appreciation of literature. We far prefer the sanguine Brahms with his lighthearted folk songs and ironic romantic despair.

That being said, a wonderful singer can nudge our appreciation in a positive direction and this was accomplished by Mr. Su whose richly textured instrument and expressive coloration went a long way toward alleviating the tedium of the preachy text.  He was particularly fine in the lowest end of the register.  Now, if only he could abandon the music stand!

If mezzo-soprano Marie Engle continued this connection-blocking habit, we were feeling more tolerant since she was a last minute replacement for the ailing Kady Evanyshyn. We are sure she has studied Schumann's Frauenliebe und -leben for some time, however, because she invested the work with all the various moods and colors called for by the text.

Ms. Engle has a pleasant voice quality and a fine command of German. Her interpretation of the earlier songs dealing with naiveté, excitement and girlish glee were right on point. That she was also able to convey shock and sorrow came as a surprise to us since that emotion is more difficult to convey by acting. In the final song, she employed a wider vibrato that added to the depiction of grief and despair.

It was in the affecting major/minor shifts that the two artists showed their stuff, leading to a very effective performance in spite of the music stand! We would love to hear this pair perform the same cycle off the book.  Put it on my wishlist!

(c) meche kroop

Tuesday, January 23, 2018


Michael Fennelly, Brittany Nickell, Tamara Banjesevic, James Ley, Bryan Murray, Courtney Johnson, William Guanbo Su, and Jane Shaulis

Sunday evening was special for many reasons. The Opera Index Gala is a golden opportunity to socialize with fellow opera lovers in the beautiful Essex House on Central Park South. Most of the luminaries of the opera world were in attendance. 

It is also a chance to witness the future of opera by hearing six stellar singers who filled our ears with music in between salad and steak.  Trust us! With talent like this, one needn't worry about the future of opera.

Mistress of ceremonies was Opera Index President Jane Shaulis who did a fine job keeping the evening moving along briskly and giving due honors to the lovely Mignon Dunn, recipient of the Opera Index 2018 Distinguished Achievement Award. Both women possess the gracious and dynamic presence so specific to great singers.

Opera Index is a nonprofit volunteer organization with a mission to advocate for opera and support its artists. The six singers who so delighted us at the gala were among a group of sixteen young artists who received a total of $55,000. in awards. You too, dear reader, can be a member of this fine organization for the paltry membership fee of $45/year. Members have a number of activities to enjoy and share with other opera lovers.

As is our wont, we will focus on the singers and the songs, not on the amounts of the awards. The recital opened with the sparkling soprano Tamara Banjesevic who enchanted the members with Juliette's paean to life "Je veux vivre" from Charles Gounod's Roméo et Juliette. She let loose volleys of joy in fine French as she left the stage and circulated between the tables just as Juliette might have done at her birthday party.

Baritone Bryan Murray evinced oceanic depths of feeling in his performance of "Mein Sehnen mein Wähnen" from Erich Korngold's Die tote Stadt. His mellifluous baritone was well suited to the requisite sincerity of expression. His fine phrasing, superb German diction, and dynamic variety made for a splendid performance.

Soprano Courtney Johnson's performance of "Come scoglio" from Mozart's Cosi fan tutte revealed a vocal firmness that echoed Fiordiligi's firmness of character (at least at this point of the opera). This firmness extended from the bottom to the top of her register, allowing the wide skips of this difficult aria to be successfully negotiated. An impressive ease in the fioritura was icing on this delectable cake.

James Ley has the sweetest tenor which he put to good use in "Vainement, ma bien-aimée" from Edouard Lalo's rarely performed opera Le roi d'Ys. (Interestingly, one of the luminaries in attendance at the Gala was Eve Queler who conducted her Opera Orchestra of New York in a concert version of this opera in 1985!) Although this opera is in no way comedic, this particular aria is a love song sung by the knight Mylio to his lady love and Mr. Ley's light touch and delicate French were perfect, as was the accompaniment by pianist Michael Fennelly, who can always be counted on for taking his lead from the singer. 

Bass William Guanbo Su is one of those young basses whose advanced vocal development belies their youth. Considered a late maturing fach, it is tempting to mentally cast him in all kinds of marvelous roles with a lengthy and enduring career. He sang "Vi ravviso", Count Rodolfo's Act I aria from Bellini's La Sonnambula and he totally convinced us that he was a man returning to the beautiful land of his childhood. It was a completely wonderful performance.

Closing the entertainment portion of the evening was soprano Brittany Nickell who employed her fine instrument with intense expressivity in "Robert, toi que j'aime" from Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. There was ample brilliance at the top and Mr. Fennelly's piano matched the singer's urgency. We particularly admired the very fine vibrato which suited the aria perfectly.

Having heard six such excellent singers at the Gala, and a few more at the November Membership Party, we commend the judges for their fine choices. We would have happily exchanged our steak for more music! But we suppose that the belly demands its due as well as the ears and the heart.

(c) meche kroop

Thursday, January 18, 2018


Gorgeous dancers of the Astana Ballet from Kazakhstan

If the Republic of Kazakhstan exported the artists of their Astana Ballet on an international tour to raise awareness of their progressive nation, they certainly succeeded.  So entranced were we by their program at Alice Tully Hall that we have spent the remainder of the night reading about the country online.  

They are the ninth largest country in the world and the largest landlocked country.  They declared their independence from the dissolving USSR in 1991 and moved their capitol to Astana in 1998.  Their population is nearly 18 million people with Islamic Kazakhs outnumbering Russian Orthodox folk by about 3 to 1.  Religious freedom and democracy are practiced and there are many other ethnic groups and religions also represented.

Last night's program at Alice Tully Hall combined elements of the old and the new; the folkloric, the classical, and the modern. We adore classical ballet and observed some very fine renditions, set to some of our favorite composers--Vivaldi, Rachmaninoff, Gounod, Saint-Saens, Strauss, and Tchaikovsky. 

One could observe a very strong influence from Russian classical ballet in the port de bras, and the épaulement. And what a beautiful line was achieved by the extensions. The women dancers had exquisitely arched feet. We particularly enjoyed the graceful lifts in the trio and duet from the ballet Diversity.

The most familiar classical piece was Fokine's "The Dying Swan". For years we have been watching one of the hairy-legged "girls" of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo dance a satirical version of this ballet in travesti.  We had almost forgotten how moving was Fokine's original.

That being said, we were most enchanted by the folkloric numbers which won us over with their exoticism, their colorful costuming, and athleticism. In one selection, the stage was filled with men leaping to astounding heights.

Kazakh folk music was used for the opening number called "Enlightenment" in which a very well-trained corps de ballet filled the stage with swirling movement, emphasized by their swirling skirts.

Modern ballet was not neglected. A few selections toward the end of the program involved all of the sexy movement and sprightly energy we have come to expect.

There were further Russian touches that have lingered with the Kazakh people. Some of the choreographers and producers are referred to as "Honored Workers of Kazakhstan" or as "People's Artist of Russia".

Astana Ballet is the newest representative of Kazakhstan theatrical arts, having been founded barely six years ago, at the initiative of the Head of State--Nursultan Nazarbayev. The company has performed in the major cities of Russia, China, France, Austria, Korea, Tokyo, Poland, and Azerbaijan. Last night's performance honored Kazakhstan's Presidency of the United Nations Security Council, a term which lasts for the month of January. But the memories of Kazakhstan's artistry will endure for far longer. 

If readers care to read my enthusiastic review of Astana Opera, it was written in October of 2014 and archived.  It will be available through use of the "search bar". We enjoyed the same variety of classical/modern/folkloric modalities as we enjoyed last night. It is such joyful news that Kazakhstan supports and shares their arts.

(c) meche kroop

Monday, January 15, 2018


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


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


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


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


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


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