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.

Sunday, January 26, 2020

TRIUMPHANT LOVE

Anna Smigelskaya and Carolina López Moreno

Two remarkable artists performed a recital of art songs, the likes of which we have not heard in a long while. Could a graduation recital at Manhattan School of Music surpass so many given at Carnegie Hall by famous singers? Yes, it could and it did!

Although some credit for the magnitude of our pleasure could be given to the astute choice of material, we have a sense that these two lovely ladies working together in sublime harmony could have pleased us with any program they chose.

We first were exposed to the gifts of soprano Carolina López Moreno in 2018 in a Talents of the World competition when we enjoyed her Juliette and her Violetta--two very different heroines, both successfully realized. Her Manhattan School of Music performance as the lead in Nino Rota's rarely heard one-act opera I Due Timidi was another feather in her artistic cap. In 2019 we had yet another chance to enjoy her artistry at a Classic Lyric Arts salon at which she performed Leïla in a duet.

However, art song is completely different from opera and it's a rare artist who can do justice to both forms of vocal artistry. Both Ms. Moreno and her collaborative pianist Anna Smigelskaya have plenty of stage presence and the audience was engaged from the beginning.

The program opened with three charming songs from Rossini's Soirées musicales. In the first song "La promessa" we could immediately identify a lovely legato that persevered throughout the smooth upward leaps, some graceful portamenti, a variety of dynamics, some clear staccato passages, and a sincerity of emotion. Ms. Smigelskaya underscored the vocal line with some lilting arpeggi.

"L'invito" manifested a seductive invitation with some well-executed turns, all laid over a gorgeous carpet of sound in the piano. In "Pastorella delle alpi", the singer created a welcoming character, reveling in some melismatic arpeggi. We enjoyed the brief shift to a minor key. To say we were enchanted would be an understatement.

We would have been content to enjoy more of the same for the remainder of the evening but it was time to move on to some lieder from Hugo Wolf's Italienisches Liederbuch, somewhat in keeping with the first set if not linguistically at least culturally. We are delighted to report that Ms. Moreno's German is perfect, but one would expect that since she grew up in Germany.

The flirtatious "Du denkst mit einem Fädchen mich zu fangen" has a cute twist at the end as the woman turns the tables on a man. Not all of von Heyse's poetry portrays an elusive woman. The singer in "O wär dein Haus durchsichtig" is completely devoted to her beloved. The poor girl in "Mein Liebster singt am Haus im Mondenscheine" is being serenaded by her sweetheart but cannot respond because of a watchful mother. Like any histrionic teenager she is "crying tears of blood"! Ms. Smigelskaya's piano was filled with longing in a minor key.

Three songs in English followed and we were astonished by the perfect enunciation that made every word clear, even at the upper end of the register. Samuel Barber's setting of James Agee's "Sure on this shining night" was followed by Charles T. Griffes' setting of Sydney Lanier's "Evening Song", filled with exaltation. Our favorite of this set was Frank Bridge's "Love went a-riding", a setting of Mary Elisabeth Coleridge's charming text, filled with wonder.

Debussy's setting of Paul Bourget's Two Romances evinced long lyrical lines in the Gallic tradition of mélodie; the singing was delicate in "L'âme évaporée" and "Les cloches", as was Ms. Smigelskaya's delicate accompaniment.

Spanish was next on the program, to our delight. Who could not succumb to the eroticism of "Del cabello mas sutil" from Fernando Obradors' Canciones clásicas españolas! In the central section, Ms. Moreno began humming and opened up her voice to a captivating vocalise, whilst Ms. Smigelskaya produced ripples of arpeggi in the piano.

Following the serious passion of that song was the charmingly silly folk song "Chiquitita la novia" which opened and closed with a flamenco inflected vocalise. There was a powerful high note to bring the song to an end.

The "dessert" of this tasty meal was in Russian and we heard three of our favorite songs by Rachmaninoff from his Twelve Romances. "Zdes' khorosho" or "How fair this spot" transported us to a special place and was marked by expressive dynamics. "Jeshchjo v poljakh belejet sneg" or "Spring Waters" is filled with the ecstacy of the arrival of Spring after a long winter.

Still, our favorite was and always will be the melancholic "Ne poy, krasavica" or "Do not sing to me" which speaks of longing for what is gone and never fails to touch our heart. All of these emotions were limned by our two artists in tandem.

The audience demanded an encore and we got the impression that none was prepared because the duo performed a welcome repeat of "Love went a-riding".

We are noted for being nit-picky but this was one recital of which we would not have changed a single note. From technique to story-telling, everything achieve a rare perfection. We hope that the two artists will stay together because their rapport was matchless. We foresee a great future for them.

We are not alone in our admiration. There have been countless awards, scholarships, and much recognition as well as plenty of engagements. What excites us most in her future is a debut as Violetta. If anyone can portray the three phases of our favorite heroine it is she. It is said that Violetta requires three different singers but one versatile soprano like Ms. Moreno will likely fulfill all the requirements.

© meche kroop


Monday, January 20, 2020

OPERA INDEX GALA

Gloria Kim, Joshua Sanders, Leah Brzyski, Teresa Castillo, Brian Michael Moore,
Xiaomeng Zhang, Aaron Crouch, Meigui Zhang, Yunuet Laguna, and Jane Shaulis

Last night at the glamorous Metropolitan Club, Opera Index held their annual Distinguished Achievement Award Dinner, honoring Joyce DiDonato and Elinor Ross. President Jane Shaulis gave a warm welcome to attendees. As we looked around the room it seemed like every citizen of Planet Opera was there to celebrate the honorees and to hear some extraordinary entertainment by a group of 2019 Award Winners.

Unfortunately, legendary soprano Elinor Ross was unable to attend but a selection from her debut at The Metropolitan Opera as Turandot was played. The recording was made a half century ago! We will be overjoyed to hear all of the young artists we heard last night making debuts at The Met!

Tenor Joshua Sanders led the entertainment with a stunning performance of "Ah! mes amis" from Donizetti's La fille du régiment. Nailing all the high C's was not enough for Mr. Sanders who engaged the audience by circulating between the tables. Ain't nobody don't love that aria!

Actually, all of the choices for the evening's entertainment were arias that are familiar and popular. We Strauss lovers were thrilled to hear "The Presentation of the Rose" from Der Rosenkavalier and our table agreed that Leah Brzyski made a perfect innocent Sophie.

"O zittre nicht" from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte is another crowd pleaser due to its vocal acrobatics and soprano Teresa Castillo did not disappoint, giving us plenty of vocal fireworks with all the accompanying thrills and chills.

We never miss a chance to hear baritone Xiaomeng Zhang perform "Vy mne pisali" from Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin, which absolutely must be his signature piece, sung with terrific tonal quality and just the right touch of hauteur. We simply cannot wait to hear Mr. Zhang perform the title role in the entire opera, a role which seems made for him.

Tenor Brian Michael Moore tackled "Ah! la paterna mano" from Verdi's Macbeth, nailing the notes as well as MacDuff's deep grief over the loss of his family. A highly moving performance indeed.

Lest one think that there is not much of interest beyond the famous male duet in Bizet's Les Pêcheurs de perles, we wish you had heard soprano Meigui Zhang sing "Comme autrefois" in which Leila reminisces about her past in the loveliest French sung on the loveliest melody. We particularly admired the note spun out like a silken thread.

Men giving away their hearts is a topic dear to our heart and tenor Aaron Crouch performed "Dein ist mein ganzes Herz" from Franz Lehar's Das Land des Lächelns. Yes, it is a silly operetta but this hit tune has provided ample material for an expansive tenor with good German.

The entertainment ended with the beloved "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Rusalka movingly performed by sensational soprano Yunuet Laguna, who made this difficult language sound as musical as Italian. We actually saw the moon in our mind's eye, so convincing was the performance.

Piano accompaniment was provided by Gloria Kim who can play just about anything!

Richard Stilwell gave a lovely tribute to honoree Joyce DiDonato who always has something sincere to say about young artists. We have often attended her master classes and find her tutelage to be original and very much custom tailored to each student. She certainly deserves to be honored, not just at a gala but constantly. This is such a prominent and admirable feature among the opera community--always helping the younger generation along.

© meche kroop











Sunday, January 19, 2020

SONG STUDIO YOUNG ARTISTS RECITAL

Curtain Call with all the young artists of Renée Fleming's Song Studio

For many years we had shared our birthday with Marilyn Horne's Birthday Week at Carnegie Hall (and even before she moved it to Carnegie Hall). Now we are happy to share it with renowned and beloved soprano Renée Fleming who shares our own goal of supporting and celebrating young singers.

Last night at Zankel Hall, Ms. Fleming related her admiration for the magical art form that combines poetry and music in a highly intimate fashion. Zankel Hall, in our opinion, is way too large to achieve intimacy; but the number of people wanting to attend this concert apparently dictated the choice.

The students chosen are all gifted and have been singing around the country and also abroad; this week of study and master classes can be thought of as polishing the gems. We hope it's not out of bounds to say that the lovely costuming could be considered settings for the polished gems. If no one sang we might have thought we were attending a fashion show!

But sing they did, so we will focus on that aspect. We confess that our appreciation is often affected by the choice of the material. A familiar song by a composer of whom we are fond can produce welcome memories and feelings of recognition. Being introduced to a composer who is unknown to us can produce feelings of discovery and delight.

Such was the case hearing Xenia Puskarz Thomas singing "Kolysanka", a Polish lullaby by Stanislaw Niewiadomski, a composer unknown to us. We were unable to learn anything about him online except what we could translate from the German; he was not only a composer but a director, teacher, and critic. What was important to us was the beauty of the language as sung by this lovely mezzo-soprano; how anyone could create such a lovely legato line in this consonant-heavy language is beyond us! 

Ms. Thomas continued to give us joy in a cleverly staged "scene" created from Mahler's "Verlor'ne Müh" from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. There was plenty of humor to be uncovered in an importuning woman trying to get the attention of a newspaper-reading man who wants nothing to do with her. Baritone Dominik Belavy did a fine job as the indifferent man, growing ever more hostile as the woman kept trying harder. Richard Fu gave his customary conviction as collaborative the pianist. 

Although Stravinsky is a bit modern for our taste and the text of "A Song of the Dew" did nothing for us, we loved the way mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn filled the verses with varying colors and moods and made dramatic sense of the song by shaping. Collaborative pianist Nara Avetisyan was right with her, alternating lovely arpeggi and sharp staccato passages; the duo brought the work to a dramatic climax.

Soprano Natalie Buickians, accompanied by Sandy Lin on the piano, captivated us with "De dónde venis, amore?" from Joaquin Rodrigo's Cuatro madrigales amatorios. The piece is short but pungent with the suspicious singer giving her wayward lover a hard time.

It has been a week since we heard for the first time "Hat dich die Liebe berührt" by Joseph Marx. In our review we expressed the wish to hear more of him, so imagine our glee when soprano Meghan Kasanders performed this impassioned song, accompanied by the always brilliant Cameron Richardson-Eames. We also enjoyed Alban Berg's "Nacht", given an hypnotic performance by this delightful duo.

Our dear friend, pianist Lachlan Glen, was all excited to hear songs by the unfortunately short-lived Lili Boulanger. We were excited to hear the voice of soprano Anneliese Klenetsky whose performances at Juilliard had made such an impression on us. It was only the final song of the set "Nous nous aimerons tant", sung in a register low enough to understand the words, that our expectations were met.

Ms. Klenetsky's collaborative pianist Anna Smigelskaya enhanced the performance measurably with her gentle hands emphasizing the tender aspect of the text.

We were more than pleased by tenor Eric Carey's performance, accompanied by Tomomi Sato's fine work at the piano. We are crazy about Schubert and thought the pair made fine sense of "An die Entfernte", exhibiting a great deal of nuance in this song of loss. One cannot go wrong with text by Goethe who also supplied the text for "Rastlose Liebe" in which Ms. Sato's piano evinced the perpetual motion of someone trying to escape the inevitable.

"Stay in My Arms", with music and text by Marc Blitzstein, struck us as surprising and satisfying with interesting internal rhymes. It seemed as if it should be part of an opera and was quite a departure from what we expect from Blitzstein.

We do love the Spanish language and greatly enjoyed Jaime León's "Rima"; it seems to us that Spanish composers held onto melody in the 20th c. at a time when American composers were annihilating it! Baritone Laureano Quant, whom we know from Manhattan School of Music, gave it an affecting emotional performance.

What we didn't know about Mr. Quant is that he is also a composer; he performed two selections from his cycle Sombras which he strangely separated by the insertion of "Rima". The selections were dramatic and dark and should have been performed consecutively. It is brave indeed to perform works that one has written. There is just so much riding on the performance! Toni Ming Geiger was a worthy piano collaborator; we heard a lot of low grumbling in the accompaniment.

The closing number was astonishing. The hall went dark and we thought there might have been a power failure. We were wrong. The stage was set for a dramatic performance by baritone Johnathan McCullough, whom we have often reviewed. Accompanied by Michael Sikich on the piano and projected videos of a father and his child, Mr. McCullough gave a powerful performance of David T. Little's "Two Marines" from his cycle Soldier Songs. 

We later read Mr. Little's text on the page and the words themselves, replete with anger and loss, are stinging and relevant with their anti-war message. There were interesting lighting effects and an empty pair of boots spotlighted at the end with Mr. McCullough's voice rising to near falsetto.

Baritone Dominik Belavy is one of our Juilliard favorites. He performed selections from Ravel's Histoires naturelles, employing his story-telling gift to portray three different members of the animal kingdom. He utilized ample gesture, showing sympathy for the disappointed peacock. We especially enjoyed his portrayal of the bossy guinea hen. John Robertson's accompaniment was sturdy, if perhaps a bit heavy-handed at times.

What we did not appreciate was the audience applauding after every song, interrupting the flow of the set. Actually they did that all evening, to our surprise. We would expect an audience of song lovers to know better!

Tenor Randy Ho performed three songs by Gerald Finzi, accompanied by Celeste Marie Johnson. We did not relate at all to the first two songs, although we adore Thomas Hardy as a novelist. However, the final song, "The Market Girl", rhymed and scanned and tickled us. Mr. Ho's diction was perfect so we could appreciate the sentiment as well as the rhyming.

What an event! With Ms. Fleming as our Host and Artistic Director and Gerald Martin Moore as Program Curator, one would expect no less. We only regret that we were unable to attend the master classes taught by Ms. Fleming, Elina Garança and Hartmut Holl. We love monitoring progress! However, dear reader, you can read an account of two of the classes, written by guest reviewer Ellen Godfrey, in an earlier entry.

Photos of the classes can be seen on our Facebook page Voce di Meche.

© meche kroop



TWO MASTERS

René Fleming and Elina Garança

Guest Review by Ellen Godfrey:

One of the most eagerly awaited events this year was the Song Studio program in the Weill Music Institute /Resnick Education Wing of Carnegie Hall. The renowned American soprano, Renee Fleming, is the Artistic Director. In the second year of this program, she continues to help mentor singers and collaborative pianists. The program focuses on art songs and refreshing the art of vocal concerts. The emerging young singers receive voice training through a week-long series of workshops, master classes, private coaching, and performing opportunities. 

On the last day of the program, a recital is held in the Judy and Arthur Zankel Hall at Carnegie Hall (review forthcoming) to showcase the talents and progress of these gifted singers. The Song Studio program builds on the legacy of the great Marilyn Horne’s program, “The Song Continues,” which supported young artists in the repertoire of song recitals.

Renee Fleming brought several famous artists to this year’s Song Studio to help mentor the young singers;  The great Latvian mezzo-soprano Elina Garanca; the multi-talented young American vocalist, Julia Bullock;, and the renowned and most sought after German piano accompanist, Hartmut Hall.

On Thursday afternoon, Elina Garanca gave a wonderful masterclass to five of the singers. She was born into a musical family and her whole life has been spent in music. In 2013 she was given the honorary title of Kammersangerin by The Vienna State Opera. She is a major star throughout the world in both opera, symphonic concerts, and song recitals. Her life long love of opera has made her a great master teacher as well.  She works gently but seriously with each of her emerging singers. Her focus is mostly on improving their technique, but she is also attentive to their pronunciation.

The first singer on the program was mezzo-soprano Kady Evanyshyn, who was accompanied by pianist Nara Avetisyan .She sang a song by Clara Schumann. Ms. Evanyshyn has a beautiful sweet sound to her mezzo voice.  She also has a charming personality and relates well to the audience. Ms. Garanca begins her work with each singer first asking them what they are looking for in the song. Ms. Garanca told her to put all the love into the music and at certain spots slow down and let the audience take in the singing. She was given some technical hints to make the sound vibrate behind the neck. The fine pianist was Nara Avetisyan, who set up the scene at the beginning of the song.

The second singer was baritone Laureano Quant, who sang a jaunty song by Francis Poulenc. He has a big, lovely baritone sound and he acquitted himself quite well in the rapid singing at the beginning of the song and the A la la la la in parts of the song.  However, his tone was a bit raw, without a lot of high resonance. Ms. Garanca told him to sing while holding his nose so that the resonance would be higher by sounding in the back rather than pushed down on the lower front part of the body.  This made his voice sound richer and less stressed and Mr. Quant was pleased with the sound. Toni Ming Geiger was an excellent pianist who supported Mr. Quant very well.

The third singer was tenor Eric Carey, who sang a Spanish song by Joaquin Turina.  His accompanist was Tomomi Sato, who played very delicately.  Mr. Carey has a beautiful sounding big voice and good diction. Ms. Garanca told him that he should see the picture of the song in his head and take as much time as needed.  He was advised to slow down and not to push but rather bring the air up from the bottom and release the pressure from high notes.

The fourth singer was mezzo-soprano Xenia Puskarz Thomas, who sang a Gustav Mahler song.  She has a good voice which can produce beautiful sounds. Ms. Garanca's coaching was to prepare better for the high notes. She worked with the singer to get the sound she wanted to hear; finally in the middle part of the song Ms. Garanca told her that the twelve notes she had just sung were the most relaxed for her and produced a beautiful sound. Ms. Garanca said she should try to get this sound throughout the whole song. She added that every singer should find a phrase in the music that helps get through the whole song with a beautiful sound. Her pianist was Richard Fu, who supported her singing very well.

The final singer was baritone Dominik Belavy, who sang a romantic song by Maurice Ravel.  He has a nice baritone sound, however, he had some problems in the lower part of the voice. Ms. Garanca had him hold his nose, as did an earlier singer, and it helped to relax him and make the lower part of his voice sound better. She told him to let his voice out gently and not to press on the larynx too hard.  His supportive pianist was John Robertson.

Ms. Garanca congratulated all of the singers and pianists for their good work. Later this month she will be performing in Berlioz' La Damnation de Faust at the Metropolitan Opera.

The day after Ms. Garanca’s master class, the great pianist and accompanist, Hartmut Holl, gave a master class. He is known for his sensitivity to sound and his ability to think beyond the notes to create atmosphere and lyrical emotions. For ten years he was the performance partner of the great German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau. They presented acclaimed lieder recitals for major festivals in Europe, Japan, and the United States. For almost 20 years he toured with Renee Fleming in Europe, Australia, Asia and the United States. He has also recorded more than 60 CDs.

Mr. Holl’s first singer of the day was baritone Dominik Belavy, accompanied by pianist John Robertson. Mr. Belavy sang a song by Franz Schubert. His voice has a nice quality and he had lots of personality. He was also quite relaxed. Mr. Holl worked with the pianist, John Robertson. He used his arms, like a conductor, at the beginning of the song, showing John how to make the music more sweeping. He worked with the baritone to get certain phrases to have the right tone and the right meaning.

The second singer, Meghan Kasanders, is a wonderful soprano. She has a shimmering sound and good resonance and is able to float a tone. She sang a song by Joseph Marx. Mr. Holl made some minor changes in the size of the tone for parts of the song and Ms. Kasanders picked up on his corrections. The pianist Cameron Richardson-Edwards accompanied her and he was also attentive to all the suggestions given by Mr. Holl.

The third singer was the tenor Randy Ho, and his accompanist was Celeste Johnson, who is a fine young pianist.  Mr. Holl, played the piano to show her how to make the music start softly and then get louder. He played the notes that he wanted her to work on and she absorbed his teaching. Mr. Ho has a sweet tenor sound but at the beginning seemed to push too much. Mr. Holl worked with him to relax and have a softer sound. He also worked with him on pronunciation of vowels .

The fourth singer was soprano Natalie Buickians, who sang a song by Edvard Grieg. She was accompanied by pianist Sandy Lin. Ms. Buickians has a nice lyric soprano voice with easy production. Mr. Holl worked with both of them to speed up the music in certain places and worked on some phrasing.

The final singer was Laureano Quant  a dark-voiced baritone with good diction who is capable of making good pianissimi. He sang a song by Schubert. Mr. Holl worked with him to get some phrases to go from from loud to soft and also went over some of his corrections several time until it was the sound he wanted. 

Both Ms. Garanca and Mr. Holl gave excellent master classes. Each of them had different ideas of what they wanted to present to the singers. Ms. Garanca concentrated more on the technique of singing whereas Mr. Holl worked more on diction and phrasing.  Both of them also gave valuable advice to the accompanists. One of the great attributes to Ms. Fleming’s Song Studio is giving the young artists the opportunity to be exposed to different styles and techniques.  

We look forward to following the progress of these young and talented singers.

© meche kroop



 


  


 



Saturday, January 18, 2020

LOVERS, SWINDLERS, AND CLOWNS

Asher Denburg, Jeremy Griffin, Anna Viemeister, and Valentin Peytchinov

We love new experiences; we love being introduced to new singers; and we love getting more evidence for our strongly held beliefs. The belief in question has to do with American opera and its definition. The academic music world insists on presenting the public with works which we see out of curiosity, works which very few people ever wish to see again.

Meanwhile, there are writers of "Broadway Musical Theater" who entertain us in the same way as Mozart, Rossini, Donizetti, Bellini, Verdi, and Puccini did in previous centuries. These works hold our interest and endure mainly because of one feature. They have melody. The melodies stay with us and we want to hear them again and again.

Of course, looking at 20th c. musical theater, there was a lot of trash, but there were also forgettable operas in the 19th c. So, dear reader, last night found us back at St. John's in the Village, the Rector of which is a true music lover. The occasion was a celebration of the centennial of Prohibition and celebrate we did with a compelling concert of music theater and cabaret, performed unamplified (YAY!) by a trio of splendid singers, accompanied on the piano by Asher Denburg, a pianist new to us but one we look forward to hearing again.

The singer who was new to us is Jeremy Griffin whose baritone voice readily encompasses the lower register. Whatever he sang was given the full force of his personality; he has plenty of presence and uses his entire body to get a song across. And he enunciates English clearly so that every word is understood.

Our favorite number of the evening was William Bolcom's "The Song of Black Max"--in our opinion the best song Bolcom ever wrote. We were introduced to this song by none other than cabaret artist Kim David Smith and we fell in love with it on the spot. We have heard it several times over the past few years with feelings of disappointment because the other singers failed to paint the picture. 

Mr. Griffin succeeded where others failed. He virtually created the character of Black Max but also created the characters of the "lady organ-grinder", not to mention "all the sons behind her", as well as the "little girls with little curls in little dollhouse jails".

He was very funny in "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" from Eric Idle's Spamalot, adding in some appropriate dance moves. 

He conveyed different facets of fatherhood from the silly to the serious. The father in "The Baby Song" from I Love You, You're Perfect, Now Change by Roberts and DiPietro is dealing with the challenge of a new baby, whereas the father-to-be in the "Soliloquy" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel is dealing with his fantasies of fatherhood. The father in "I Confess" from Snow and Pitchford's Footloose is dealing with far more serious issues, as a preacher laments the son he lost.

In an entirely different mood was "Epiphany" from Sondheim's Sweeney Todd in which Mr. Griffin created a scarily believable angry and vengeful character. And how about that relaxed and confident singer of Paul Anka's "My Way" who's nearing the end of a fulfilling life! So many different characters and all so well realized!

Although Mr. Griffin did the heavy lifting for the evening, mezzo-soprano Anna Viemeister created the hilarious character of Prince Orlofsky from Johann Strauss' Die Fledermaus, singing in heavily accented English his famous aria "Chacun a son goût" in a pretty clever English translation. She also made a superlative emcee for the evening.

To cap things off, Bulgarian bass Valentin Peytchinov lent his venerable instrument and larger than life personality to create the character of French planter Emile de Becque lamenting the loss of his love in "This Nearly Was Mine" from Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific.

What a treat to hear such wonderful music unamplified in an intimate environment and sung by such terrific talent! We celebrated Prohibition at a post-concert reception with bubbly toasts and a sing-a-long with Francisco Mirando at the piano.

© meche kroop

Thursday, January 16, 2020

CUBANS IN PARIS

New York Festival of Song at Juilliard with Cubans in Paris

 We were raised a stone's throw from Cuba and we counted among our friends a number of people who had fled Castro's regime. What no one ever told us was that there had been another mass exodus in the 1920's. The violent and repressive regime of Machado led to economic decline and was a hostile environment for musicians, especially if they wrote in the Afro-Cubanismo style. According to Steven Blier's excellent essay, Paris welcomed them with open arms.

Last night's concert was the annual event we always look forward to when Mr. Blier brings his brand of magic to Juilliard where his students always bring even more magic to the stage. Cubans in Paris was filled with terpsichorean energy, luscious melodies, and captivating rhythms. 

Although the students got to do a lot of dancing and acting, we were sadly confined to our seat. The fast-rising director Mary Birnbaum created a little drama out of each song and Adam Cates created the compelling choreography. Shawn Chang provided able assistance to Mr. Blier at the second piano and we must say we have never seen a pianist with such erect posture. Leonardo Granados was responsible for the percussion on conga drums, supplying the rhythmic impulse.

Those who know our taste in music will not be surprised to learn that the first piece on the program--"La bella cubana"-- was our favorite song of the evening, remaining in first place no matter how many others appealed to our eyes and ears. Indeed it was one of two songs from an earlier period, just after the turn of the 20th century; it was composed by José White, a child prodigy whose music was admired by none other than Rossini. This paean to a beautiful Cuban woman was sung in splendid harmony by tenor César Andrés Parreño and baritone Kyle Miller.

Mr. Parreño has quite a feel for Cuban music and delighted us further in a duet with the lovely mezzo-soprano Olivia Cosío. "Si llego a besarte!" was a ballad of yearning, and who would not yearn for the love of the lovely Ms. Cosío. We enjoyed his solo "Tú no sabe inglé", a very funny popular song by Emilio Grenet, whose music was far more accessible than Alejandro Garcí Caturla's "Bito Manué" an earlier setting of the same humorous text by Nicolas Guillén, here performed in fine funny fashion by tenor Santiago Pizarro and Mr. Miller. This poor guy can't connect with all the available American women tourists because he is linguistically handicapped.

The pair also worked brilliantly together in excerpts from the operetta Toi c'est moi by Moisés Simons. The work had a charming music hall feel and told of the adventures of a pair of buddies under both warm fraternal circumstances and also during a fight--"Entre copains".  What a bromance! The choreography was outstanding.

Sindo Garay was a self-taught musician who knew how to write beautiful harmonies. His "Guarina" (another song from the turn of the 20th c.) was superbly realized by tenor Ian Matthew Castro and baritone Aaron Keeney. It had the flavor of a serenade and had much in common with "La bella cubana". It seems our ears just respond better to music closest to the Bel Canto period.

Let us move on to the lovely ladies! We were rather dazzled by the singular soprano of Chea Young Kang who moved us with an aria from José Mauri's zarzuela-- La esclava. In "Perdida para siempre la esperanza", the heroine Matilde laments her tragic life; her beloved deserts her when he learns that she is a mulatta. Such themes were common in racially mixed Cuba, one of the few places were zarzuela survived and was repurposed to suit themes of the time and place.

She was similarly heartbreaking in Ernesto Lecuono's "Maria la O" from the zarzuela of the same name and with a similar theme.

Soprano Jaylyn Simmons had all the right moves as well as a soaring soprano. Eliseo Grenet's sorrowful "Lamento esclavo" found contrast in Simons' "Palmira", portraying a woman who enjoys her sexuality and attracts all the available men. Of course the men of the cast did well as her multiplicity of admirers!

We were not the only member of the audience to enjoy Ms. Casío's performance of Simons' "C'est ça la vie". In this song, Carmen gets to do the stabbing and her faithless lover got just what he deserved.

The lively encore came, not from Cuba, but from Puerto Rico. The entire ensemble joined in the raucous "Cachita" by Rafael Hernandez. The infectious mood of the artists spilled over into the audience and we virtually danced our way home.

© meche kroop


Tuesday, January 14, 2020

TIME FOR THREE

Charles Yang, Ranaan Meyer, and Nicholas "Nick" Kendall

Last night's venture beyond our comfort zone was, uncharacteristically, a huge success. We have learned that someone with excellent curatorial skills can lead us down unusual pathways and open our ears to something we didn't expect to love. Andrew Ousley, the mastermind behind Death of Classical--comprising The Crypt Sessions at The Church of the Intercession as well as The Angel's Share at Green-Wood Cemetery--knows how to provide superb evenings of unmitigated delight to a small select audience, of which we were thrilled to be a member.

Last night at The Crypt we had a musical experience that satisfied our soul by virtue of a trio of artists sharing their music in a magical space deep underground, lit only by candles. We were enthralled by the melodic and harmonic invention and the intensity with which the three men related to one another, their instruments, and the audience. Taking notes would have distracted us from this intimate experience. We just listened.

Most of the vocals were handled by Charles Yang who plays a mean violin; giving the double bass more melody than we've ever heard was Ranaan Meyer; Nicolas "Nick" Kendall contributed his violin magic and all joined for what might be called "backup singing" but which we would call texture.

Some of the numbers they performed were originals, some were composed for them, and yet others were "covers", although our lack of knowledge of popular music prevents us from naming them. We had the feeling that there was a considerable degree of momentary improvisation. As in any chamber group there was nearly constant eye contact--but no scores to dilute the intimacy.

The three artists are clearly classically trained and our minimal knowledge of string technique allowed us to recognize double stops and pizzicato. However, there were other techniques that we hadn't seen before like strumming and plucking. Mr. Meyer did things to his double bass that we usually think of as ways a man might touch a woman--caressing, stroking, tapping, and light scratching.  Yes, these artists do love their instruments!

With such unfamiliar music we felt free to associate. At times we thought of The Beatles, at times Bluegrass music with its lively banjo, at times the kind of Country Music one might hear at a hoedown, as well as folk tunes which we could not quite place. All these styles were perfectly integrated into a pleasing and absorbing whole. The program was predominantly happy music until the end when the trio played music that sounded deep and sacred.

We were not alone in our enthusiastic appreciation. The Crypt holds less than 50 music lovers but the deafening applause gave the impression of hundreds. The trio has played in some mighty grand venues but we were grateful for the intimacy. The connection between the artists and the audience provided a unique experience, one that we are not likely to forget!

We might add that Mr. Ousley has another series up his sleeve and if you follow Voce di Meche on Facebook you will be among the first to find out--which is a good thing because Death of Classical events sell out immediately.

© meche kroop 

Monday, January 13, 2020

I LOVE LUCY


Lucy Arner and Hans Pieter Herman


Any time a singer undertakes to learn one of Schubert's magnificent song cycles, we are overjoyed. Although the current spell of Springlike weather deprived the performance of Winterreise of its seasonality, we approached the evening with a high level of anticipation. We are usually swept away in a torrent of emotionality. Although our current social climate involves plenty of "ghosting" and single people are far more likely to rush toward a new partner when disappointed in love, still, we all know people who are filled with despair over a breakup. The so-called "excesses" of German Romanticism are nowhere near gone from the emotional landscape.

Although last night's interpreter stated in the program notes that he was astonished that two 30-year-old men could have created a work so profound, we ourself are not surprised. Genius does not wait for middle age. As a matter of fact, we have heard students at Juilliard interpret the work in a fashion that drew us in, leaving us in a pool of tears.

Last night, we were not drawn in by the vocalism and found ourself instead listening acutely to the piano collaboration of Lucy Arner who limned every single reference to natural elements, employing every variations of color and dynamics at her disposal. Every time the harmonies shifted we felt a shift in our emotions. Changes from minor to major caused our heart to leap with hope; returns to the minor mode were wrenching.

The singer, the very renowned Dutch baritone Hans Pieter Herman, may have had his own feelings about the work but his interpretation did not touch our heart. Wilhelm Müller's passionate poetry and Franz Schubert's memorable melodies failed to blossom for us. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out why, since most of the audience seemed more than satisfied with the performance.

For one thing, Mr. Herman's voice could be considered rather too heavy to portray a young man; at times he sounded stentorian.  For another, although being self-absorbed can be thought of as consonant with the poet's mental state, staring up into the non-existent balcony left us feeling left out. We didn't feel a connection with the singer.

During the introductory "Gute Nacht", the singer was very still, but as the cycle progressed, he employed plenty of gestures, none of which felt organic or spontaneous. Perhaps Mr. Herman was alone with sorrows of his own but we couldn't feel along with him.

It is admirable that despite the hearing loss we read about in the program, Mr. Herman achieved perfect intonation. We wish the dynamics had been as well realized.  Certain words were hit hard and jumped out of line; sometimes the words chosen for emphasis seemed idiosyncratic. We missed the subtlety of gradual crescendo and decrescendo. We will say that the German was perfect. 

There were a few lovely moments, especially in the quieter lieder.  In "Irrlicht" there was a beautifully floated high note."Der Lindenbaum" is one of our favorites and we particularly enjoyed the piano prelude in which the piano echoed the phrase and Schubert's voicing produced an excellent imitation of a French horn.

Ms. Arner's playing was on point throughout. In "Rast" and in "Einsamkeit", we not only heard the poet's plodding steps but we felt them. The piano part captured the false cheer of the poet's delusional dream in "Frühlingstraum". In "Die Post", we felt the hoofbeats of the horse and heard the sound of the posthorn. In "Im Dorfe" the piano created the growling of the dogs.

The cycle ended on a haunting dirge in which Mr. Herman successfully lightened his voice. We will restrain ourself from trying to interpret "Der Leiermann" and be content with the mystery of it all.

© meche kroop

Saturday, January 11, 2020

UNDERGROUND SALON


Felix Jarrar, Alexandra Lang, Angela Candela, Gillian Watson, Celeste Morales, Robert Colon, and Chantal Brundage

What a splendid idea to provide a safe place for young artists to try out new material. Angela Candela's brainstorm is in its second year and we are so glad that we were able to attend. We have wonderful memories from last April as well as from last night. We heard a few sopranos that we have heard before and a couple who were new to us, as well as a countertenor. All were accompanied by the versatile pianist/composer Felix Jarrar who always gives his all to whatever he undertakes.

Several of the singers have upcoming auditions and competitions and were trying out their arias in front of a live audience, all the members of which were supportive, giving them the applause they so richly deserved. A few asked us for suggestions to improve their presentations but those who asked struck us as being performance ready. All the singers introduced themselves and told the background of the arias they were about to sing. This is so helpful and we thought of this as event as the perfect one with which to introduce an opera newbie.

Ms. Candela is a remarkable soprano whom we have reviewed a number of times -- at the gala of Classic Lyric Arts and at the International Vocal Arts Institute. Her ability to slip into any role makes her an artist to watch. We still recall her hilarious "Je suis grise".

Her Mimi last night (from Puccini's La Bohême) served to introduce her character in a way that made us want her to "get the guy". Like any young woman on a first date she was "selling herself" with both winsomeness and flirtatiousness. She colored her lovely voice with sweetness and negotiated the upward leaps with a satin legato.

Later in the program, she picked up where Chantal Brundage left off in Violetta's Act I scene from Verdi's La Traviata. Ms. Brundage gave gravitas and vulnerability to the "Forse lui"  and Ms. Candela stepped in with the fiery cabaletta "Sempre libera", filled with stunning coloratura effects. What a versatile artist she is!

Celeste Morales is well remembered from her admirable Alice in Verdi's Falstaff at Manhattan School of Music. Last night she gave a deeply affecting performance of Liu's aria "Signor ascolta" from Puccini's Turandot. With terrific technique, she portrayed the desperation and anguish of the slave girl warning her master. The sets and costumes appeared in our mind's eye--always a good sign of a successful portrayal. We loved the legato line, the Italianate phrasing, and the dynamic variety.

In a total change of pace, she also performed Joseph Marx's romantic "Hat dich die Liebe berührt"; we are pleased to report that the German was excellent. We were inspired to hear more of this late 19th c. Romantic composer. 

The first time we met Alexandra Lang, she was directing a charming pastiche of operetta for New Camerata Opera, which may actually have been our introduction to the company that was to grow into a successful presence on Planet Opera. Last night she tackled the extremely difficult mad scene from Donizetti's Anna Bolena and made us sit up and take notice.

Not only is the vocal line devilishly difficult but the singer must portray a wide range of emotions by employing a variety of vocal colors. The doomed Queen faces death with denial at first, luxuriating in some pleasant memories, and then with panic. The flowing legato of the aria was followed by a fioritura-filled cabaletta, marked by accuracy in the scale passages and arpeggi. It was riveting and we believed Ms. Lang's characterization.

Gillian Watson is new to us and we were glad to have her brought to our attention. Her bright and powerful instrument was put to good use in "Mi tradi" from Mozart's Don Giovanni. She evinced a fine vibrato and successfully negotiated the melismatic arpeggi. She limned the character of Donna Elvira with fine vocal control combined with generous use of gesture.

Later in the program we heard her fine French in "Il est doux, il est bon" from the seldom performed Hérodiade by Massenet.

Robert Colon, the sole male on the program, is listed as a countertenor but the unevenness throughout his register made it difficult to place him in that fach. He sang our beloved "Verdi prati" from Händel's Alcina with feeling and expressiveness and some very interesting embellishments of the vocal line in the repeat. However, he needs to work on getting his voice centered and perhaps considering a different fach. His second selection was "on the book" and did nothing to change our initial impression since we heard a lot more chest voice than one would expect from a countertenor.

The concert lasted but an hour but gave us a great deal to appreciate. We hope we will be free for the next Underground Salon.

© meche kroop

Thursday, January 9, 2020

HYGGE



Cozy, comfortable, convivial, and contented are adjectives used to explain the Scandinavian concept of "hygge". We are not exactly sure how last night's concert at the Weill Recital Hall exemplifies those qualities, but we did hear some mighty fine piano playing from Irena Portenko and guest pianist Zachary Hoffman.

When we think of those adjectives, our mind may run to a 19th c. salon at the home of Franz Schubert with his friends gathered round to hear his latest songs, holding the scores in their hands, and singing his glorious melodies. Perhaps that what countertenor Jeffrey Palmer had in mind when he attempted to sing three of Schubert's best contributions to the lieder literature. Had Schubert been present, we do not believe he would have been content.

The concert stage is not the place to try out new material holding the score in one's hand. Nor is it the place to sing in a language which one has not mastered. Mr. Palmer's German is schlecht with frequent dropping of final consonants. His phrasing left much to be desired with breaths taken in awkward places, interrupting the vocal line.

We found ourself focusing on the superb playing of Dr. Portenko and realizing just how skillful Schubert was in supporting the vocal line, something which Mr. Palmer did not profit from. In "Ständchen" the piano's nightingale joins the lover in his serenade. In "Auf dem Wasser zu Singen", the ripples of the water are portrayed by parallel ripples in the piano. "An die Musik" pays tribute to the very artistry that Schubert accomplished in his sadly truncated life.

Lest you think we have something against the countertenor fach, rest assured we do not. As a matter of fact, we listen to Jakub Jozef Orlinski regularly, as well as Aryeh Nussbaum Cohen, two young masters of the fach

Mr. Palmer's singing was far better in two arias from Händel operas. "Ombra mai fu" from Serse was sung with pure Italian vowels and a pleasing legato. Mr. Palmer sings expressively and we could see the grand shady tree through his eyes and feel the cool shade. "Va tacito nascosto" from Giulio Cesare in Egitto sat particularly well in the best part of Mr. Palmer's register and the embellishments of the vocal line were exquisite. 

We would have been happy to have heard Mr. Palmer sing nothing else for the entire concert but that was not the case. He tackled "Che faro senza Euridice" from Gluck's Orfeo ed Euridice and we'd call it a draw. We also heard some Debussy and Schumann, neither of which compared with the two traditional Irish songs with their haunting melodies. The singer has a pleasing vibrato in the lower end of his register but an unpleasant harshness at the top.

To round out the eclectic vocal part of the program was a song by Björk, one by Barber, and one of our favorite Sondheim songs--"Send in the Clowns" from A Little Night Music, a song which we would be happy to label as an aria. We were puzzled by the inclusion of an a capella aria from Huang Ro's Paradise Interrupted, which we reviewed in 2016 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival. We wanted to hold onto our memory of John Holiday's ethereal voice. Mr. Palmer's singing did not even approach the sound of Mandarin. Or was that an English translation? One could not tell.

If the vocal part of the program did not leave us with "contentment", we admit that it was convivial with the singer chatting amiably with the audience and, at one point, sitting at the edge of the stage. The audience loved it.

The piano part of the program, on the other hand, was always artistic and consequently pleasing. Dr. Portenko achieved a comfortable stage presence as she addressed the audience and enjoyed a fine collaboration with her fellow pianist Zachary Hoffman with whom she performed the third section of Rachmaninoff's Suite No. 1 in G Minor. The work comprises the substantial development of a simple theme, with Mr. Hoffman's piano providing some marching chords to accompany Dr. Portenko's lyricism. 

We don't often hear two pianos-four hands and were delighted by the stereophonic effect. We were even more delighted when two of Dr. Portenko's students joined the other two pianists and we heard Piazzolla's "Libertango" played by two pianos-eight hands!

Mr. Hoffman had a fine solo in Cécile Chaminade's "Arabesque No. 1, Op. 61" with it's 19th c. lyricism that we so enjoy. The frequent recurrence of the theme gave the work a satisfying unity.

Dr. Portenko's solo was Chopin's "Ballade No.1 in G minor, Op. 23". The lengthy work is full of invention and takes the listener on a profound emotional journey. A searching melody gives way to an intensely passionate section; tenderness alternates with high drama. Just when one thinks the work is drawing to a close, new themes are brought in. By the time it ends one feels emotionally drained but content.

We would be remiss not to mention the New York Premiere of Benjamin Araujo's piano cycle Nine Portraits for Piano Solo, in which this young composer limned the personalities of members of his family and also public figures. The work was assured and original with plenty of variety among the nine episodes. And what is your 15-year-old doing???

The lengthy program even offered an encore, "This Woman's Work" by Kate Bush in which a woman dies in childbirth, or so we think, because the words were not clearly enunciated. We would have preferred a more joyful conclusion to the evening.

© meche kroop

Sunday, January 5, 2020

CHOPIN AND SZYMANOWSKI

Amy Owens, Michael Brofman, Spencer Myer, Sarah Nelson Craft, and Miori Sugiyama

Michael Brofman,  pianist par excellence and Founder and Artistic Director of the Brooklyn Art Song Society, has a knack for devising seasons of song with interesting themes. For this season, their tenth, the theme is HOME with a focus on national identity. Friday night's concert explored Polish identity with works by Chopin and Szymanowski, an admirer of Chopin.

Not only does Mr. Brofman create interesting seasons which draw an ever-growing audience, but he has a knack for finding gifted young artists to interpret the works. This concert was a case in point. Sharing their vocal artistry were soprano Amy Owens and mezzo-soprano Sarah Nelson Craft, both of whom we have reviewed and enjoyed on prior occasions.

Collaborating on the keyboard were Mr. Brofman himself, as well as Miori Sugiyama and Spencer Myer, both B.A.S.S. regulars. The first half of the program comprised five of Chopin's seventeen songs, songs that he never made much of and which were not played until after his death. Interspersed were several of his brilliant mazurkas played by Ms. Sugiyama.

The mazurkas touched us deeply, both the famous ones like Op.7 #1 in B-Flat Major, the central minor section of which is heartbreaking, and the ones with which we are unfamiliar. They all share the typical rhythmicity of his unfortunate motherland and depth of feeling-- an intimacy which was brought out by Ms. Sugiyama. Although we have played some of Chopin's easy pieces, it was a real treat to hear Ms. Sugiyama make these challenging mazurkas sound easy. Watching her hands let us know that the sound gave only the illusion of ease.

The songs were charming, strophic, and melodic with a heavy emphasis on folk tunes. Just reading the lyrics in Polish made us wonder how a singer could possibly make the words musical and pleasing to the ear; Ms. Craft, although not Polish-speaking, made considerable effort to study the pronunciation of the difficult consonants and sounded fine to our ear. That she was on the book was forgivable in light of this challenge but we would love to hear the songs sung by a native Pole because we personally lose connection when a singer glances down at the score.

Nonetheless, her voice was warm and expressive with attention paid to phrasing and plenty of variety from one verse to the next. We particularly enjoyed "A Handsome Lad" in which the final couplet was repeated in each verse. It was an altogether appealing performance.

The second half of the program allowed Mr. Myer to shine in Karol Szymanowski's Métopes, Op. 29. The work was inspired by Homer's Odyssey and involved fancy fingerwork, trills, and some liquid arpeggi.

The songs by Szymanowski, a cycle entitled Songs of the Fairy Tale Princess, were sung by Ms. Owens in a bright clear soprano. "The Lonely Moon" seemed to capture the essence of moonlight and involved staccato passages. The punishing high tessitura never daunted Ms. Owens who provided interest by means of ample dynamic variety.

Although she only glanced at the score periodically, we had the same problem as we did with the Chopin. We actually are acquainted with a few Polish singers and hope to hear more Polish music in the future. We recall an absorbing production of Szymanowski's King Roger at Santa Fe Opera some years ago.

B.A.S.S.' s next entry this season will be on February 7th with works by Bartók, Kodaly, and Janáček with their own versions of national identity.

(c) meche kroop