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, March 31, 2024


 Kanae Matsumoto Giampietro and Scott Rubén La Marca

There is something so healing about beautiful singing! We entered Ades Performance Space at Manhattan School of Music, windblown and weatherbeaten. In less than two hours we felt suffused with warmth and cheer. Is this a response to the stimulation of chakras or simply our appreciation of a tender tenor voice? We know not, but we were glad we made the effort to brave the elements.

It was an altogether satisfying recital with several thrilling moments and not a single unfortunate one. Scott Rubén La Marca curated the perfect recital to show off his artistry in several languages. We even enjoyed the English selections! We have been following this artist for some time and was impressed by his artistic growth. The concert was given to satisfy the requirements of a Master of Music Degree but could easily have been presented at any concert hall in New York City.

The program began with a pair of canzoni right out of the "24 Italian Songs and Arias" book, often given to students as they begin their vocal instruction. You could be forgiven for expecting them to be basic but you would have been surprised by the subtleties of dynamics and coloration in the romantic "Alma del core" by Calandra and the spirited "Danza fanciulla danza" by Durante. It was like hearing them for the first time! The more modern Tosti song "Aprile" was a seasonal delight, given an expansive performance.

The part of the concert that touched us the most was the pair of songs drawn from Schubert's cycle Die Schöne Müllerin. Now here we have a highly opinionated comment to make. We would argue against the "received wisdom" that this cycle should not be tackled until a singer is "mature".  NO! This is a young man's journey and when one is "mature" one can barely remember what it feels like to be infatuated for the first time and how every glance and word of the love object is profoundly affecting. When one is mature one learns how to deal with romantic disappointment. 

And so Mr. La Marca sang these songs as if he were living (or re-living) the experience. In "Am Feierabend" the poet (Wilhelm Müller) has finished his day's work as an apprentice in the mill and joins his boss and the boss' daughter at the fireside. He is totally fixated on the girl and wants so badly to be noticed.

In "Der Neugierige" he confesses his anxiety to a brook and here the sounds of the brook, so aptly created by the composer, were stunningly recreated by collaborative pianist Kanae Matsumoto Giampietro. 

Beethoven's songs are rarely performed in recital and Mr. La Marca's selection  of "Adelaide" was the perfect choice. We've heard musicologist claim that Beethoven was not a good melodist but this song is touching in the directness and simplicity of its melody and was sung with convincing ardor and in good German.

There were also French melodies on the program--"Soir" and "Toujours" by Fauré and Duparc's "Chanson Triste", all sung with Gallic delicacy. It was in the gentle "Soir" that we noticed the most exquisite decrescendo at the end which was drawn out like a fine thread of silk until barely audible.  It was truly a breath holding moment for the audience and a feat of breath control by the singer.

Listening to Quilter's "O Mistress Mine", we realized that a good song in English must obey the dictates of the rhythm of the English language. Shakespeare's iambic pentameter gave the composer some great text to set and Mr. La Marca made every word count.

The evening ended with a set of Spanish songs that delighted the ear. Regular readers know how much we admire Latin American compositions and how singable we find the Spanish language. The Ecuadorian composer Gerardo Guevara (still living, we believe) composed the lovely "Despedido" with a rhythmic piano introduction, giving Ms. Giampietro a chance to shine and making us feel like dancing. The Pasillo is a dance form popular in Ecuador and just bursting with Latin American flavor and immediacy.

We first learned of the Argentinian composer Carlos Lopez Buchardo through Steven Blier's concerts and it was fun to recognize his soulful "Los Puñalitos" which Mr. La Marca recently sang at the New York Festival of Song. 

The final set by Turina took us from the Latin American dance floor to the concert halls of Spain with the cycle Poema en forma de canciones comprising art songs that appear regularly in vocal programs. We particularly enjoyed the vocalise which introduced and concluded "Cantares" and the irony of "Los dos miedos" and "Las locas por amor".

We have not said much about Mr. La Marca's technique which is so fine that it faded into the background, allowing us to focus on his interpretive skills and his complete immersion in the music and text. He is the type of singer that draws one into the world of the song. What a fine place to be!

© meche kroop

Saturday, March 23, 2024


Shawn Chang and Erin Wagner

We have had 5 years to watch the artistic growth of mezzo-soprano Erin Wagner, an exciting artist whose worth has been noted and appreciated by both Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song and by Young Concert Artists. We recall admiring her performance as The Mother in Britten's Albert Herring  during her days at Manhattan School of Music. We remember some Barber also (his Hermitage Songs) at a Gerda Lissner Competition Winner's Recital. There was some lovely Schumann at a Juilliard Songfest (Frauenlieben und Leben). We decided she was someone to watch.

And then Covid interrupted everyone's career! But Ms. Wagner bounced back with some impressive Strauss ("Sein wir wieder gut" from Ariadne auf Naxos) impressing us with a strong upper register and winning her a major award from The George and Nora London Foundation.  And since then, some most enjoyable contributions to a NYFOS program and this Young Concert Artists solo recital at Merkin Hall.

Of course, there have been many more honors and prizes and a stint at the Houston Grand Opera Studio but it is only our loss that we did not get to hear all of them.

Dear Reader, we are very particular in our preferences and what stood out for us at this YCA recital was a quartet of songs by Franz Schubert whose lieder, in our opinion, have never been equalled in melodic invention, storytelling, correspondence between voice and piano, and just basic listenability. Although we love the songs of Schumann, Brahms, and Mahler, if we had to choose just one, it would be Schubert.

Four of his songs were sung in sets of two. In "Wehmut", Mattaus von Collin's  text speaks of the melancholy which tinges the appreciation of  the beauty of nature. In "Herbst", the poet (Ludwig Rellstab) compares the loss of love with the autumnal losses in nature. What impressed us was how Ms. Wagner's vocal coloration encompassed sorrow, anxiety, and also the joys of nature.

Goethe's text for "Hoffnung" inspired Schubert to write a jaunty melody that provided some relief to our saddening mood and allowed Ms. Wagner's lighter coloration to give us cheer. However, our very favorite of the four songs was "Frühlingsglaube" in which the poet (Johann Ludwig Uhland) used imagery of the coming Spring to lighten his tormented heart. And just listen to the way Schubert's melody echoed the rhyme scheme of A-A-B, C-C-B! This familiar melody took possession of our brain and Ms. Wagner's lovely voice has echoed in our ear ever since.

We do not care for most 20th c. poetry and decry the unmelodic music it has dictated. And thus we did not enjoy the two songs by the Ukrainian composer Stefania Turkewich nearly as much, although Ms. Wagner injected them with intense drama. 

One cannot fail to admire the spirit of Viktor Ullmann who managed to write music under the harsh rule of the Nazi regime whilst confined to the concentration camp at Teresienstadt. Still, we found his cycle of sonnets with text by the 16th c. poet Louïze Labe to be a bit long, dwelling on a broken heart like a friend who goes on and on, making one try very hard to listen whilst not really relating.  After making note of Ms. Wagner's fine French, we found our attention turning to the piano writing which collaborative pianist Shawn Chang performed with a light sweet touch.

Thankfully, we got to hear more Schubert in the second half of the program and found it curious that the text he chose (by Johann Mayrhofer) utilized the same rhyme scheme as Uhland did. Again we observed how this dictates a most singable melodic line. What was interesting about the performance was that we just heard the same piece "Iphigenia" sung the night before by a soprano who  handled it quite differently. Both young singers are admirable artists and how wonderful it is to hear different interpretations in close temporal proximity. Ms. Wagner made her plaintive pleas to the gods with beautiful and apt piano accompaniment.

In "Die Götter Griechenlands"  Schiller used a different rhyme scheme (A-B-A-B-A-B)  and we loved the way Schubert gave the same motif to the voice and the piano in alteration. And we loved the way Ms. Wagner made the most of it.

Us Now  was composed by Mr. Chang, a setting of text by Jacqueline Suskin who seems to have discovered the philosophy of Existentialism, a philosophy which has guided our very own life. But the text came across as a lecture. Frankly, we listen to music in order to feel, not to think. After the concert, we read Ms. Wagner's lengthy and thoughtful essay about the current situation in the world, hence "Everything Must Change" as the title of the concert. Of course, it would be a fine thing if music could change the world but we just don't see it. We prefer such themes as "Springtime" with a singer giving us appropriate songs that fill us with hope (like Rachmaninoff's "Rushing Waters").

Although we are in agreement with her opinions on the state of the world we were unable to understand the choice of music and felt as if we failed to grasp something. We checked this out with our art loving companion, with whom we have had discussions on the state and fate of the world, and learned that our opinion was shared.

Two unusual pieces ended the program. One was a song by a band called Radiohead with whom we were unacquainted. The lyrics of "Everything In Its Right Place" were nonsensical and obsessively repetitious and the melody was fragmented; but apparently it  meant something to the artists since Mr. Chang did the arrangement and Ms. Wagner had great fun singing it. We looked up the original online and didn't enjoy that either.

The second one sounded better to our ears. It was a bluesy song called, of course, "Everything Must Change"-- by another artist unfamiliar to us named Bernard Ighner. It was also arranged by Mr. Chang and we loved the simplicity of the melody and lyrics. Indeed, it had the immediacy that we love in Schubert. Of course, we looked that up online also and enjoyed the original recording. But not as much as Schubert!

We also needed to look up the encore song-- Randy Newman's  "I Think It's Going to Rain Today" and, although popular music is not our fach, we can see why people love it and respond to the melody and lyrics. It was brave of Ms. Wagner to "cover" it after hearing Bette Midler's version and Nina Simone's.

© meche kroop


Thursday, March 21, 2024


Amber Scherer and Kerrigan Bigelow

Shelen Hughes and Michal Skowronek

Last night at Merkin Hall we had the pleasure of hearing two equally excellent partnerships between two sopranos and their respective collaborative pianists.

The occasion was The Juilliard School's Vocal Arts Honors Recital at which singers who were nominated by their respective teachers were submitted to a panel of esteemed judges. We thought the judges chose well and we enjoyed seeing the rapt faces of the audience, not to mention the radiant pride observed in both Artistic Director Brian Zeger and Steven Blier who has programmed them both in his New York Festival of Song recitals. 

It is significant that each artist chose her own program. Whether they chose to sing works that they love or works that would best show off their unique artistry was impossible to tell; perhaps they are one and the same. In any case, it was a grand opportunity for us to forget about technique and to focus on the various factors that make for a great performance--audience engagement, the ability to get inside a song, and the ability to tell a story with dramatic validity. We personally are not in favor of a singer standing still and accomplishing everything with the voice. We enjoy acting, as long as it seems organic. Of course, we know that gesture and facial expression must be rehearsed but it must appear organic.

The first half of the program introduced us to Juilliard undergraduate Kerrigan Bigelow, whose artistry seems way beyond her years. She opened with a song composed by a fellow Juilliard student by the name of Juliette Di Bello who not only composed  the music but wrote the text herself. "Full of Fire and Future" was in blank verse and full of feelings and imagery. To us she seemed to show promise as a composer.

The rest of Ms. Bigelow's program seemed centered around the theme of women abused by narcissistic men! Was this just an accident? Schubert set Goethe's text, "Gretchen am Spinnrade", with great attention to detail and, although we have heard it countless times, we never tire of it. Ms. Bigelow took us on a tour of poor Gretchen's distracted state and variety of emotions in a most affecting way whilst collaborative pianist Amber Scherer (heard and reviewed last night at a NYFOS concert) let us feel the insistence of the spinning wheel. We truly felt shaken.

The next work was handled in a most original way. The artist began speaking about (we thought) her relationship with her father, which we thought would be an introduction to a song she recalled from her childhood.  But no!  We gradually realized that she was speaking in the voice of Iphegenie as an introduction to the Schubert lied "Iphigenia", a setting of text by Mayrhofen. What a brilliant and original idea, bringing the victim's pain into sharp focus!

The woman in Rebecca Clark's "The Seal Man" is led to her doom by a man too self-absorbed to realize that she is from a species that is not "waterproof". That poor girl was love-bombed into following him blindly into the sea. She drowns.

We read in the bio section that our young artist sang "Try Me Good King" for its composer Libby Larsen and we can only imagine how dazzled Larsen must have been by Ms. Bigelow's riveting performance. We have heard the work before and did not find it at all compelling--just letters from a bunch of unfairly condemned wives of that master narcissist King Henry VIII.

However, our young artist made each doomed Queen into an individual with strong feelings underneath the professed forgiveness and religiosity.  We heard anger, meekness, irony, and bitterness. This lent variety to this rather long work. The only disappointment was not in the performance but in the audience--sheeple who heard one person applaud after each Queen's declaration and found it necessary to join in, thus disturbing the flow of the piece.

And thus it was that soprano Shelén Hughes entered the stage after the intermission and kindly suggested that the audience refrain from applause until each set ended. It's a sad state of affairs that people are so maleducato that they need to be taught basic concert etiquetteWith that problem out of the way we felt free to enjoy the second half of the evening and to revel in the performance of one of our favorite artists. 

We have vague recollections of her undergraduate years at Manhattan School of Music and a performance class taught by Catherine Malfitano and a very vivid recollection of her performance as Snegurechka in Rimsky-Korsakov's The Snow Maiden. We confess to a surge of self-congratulation in recalling our thoughts at the time that she was a true star in the making.  It is always gratifying to watch a singer's growth but especially so when we have recognized their gifts early on.

Accompanied by the excellent collaborative pianist Michal Skowronek who is new to us, she opened with a selection of songs from Banalités by Francis Poulenc sung in superb French and fine Gallic style. Our favorites were the languorous "Hôtel" which contained a most delicate and expressive portamento and the charming "Voyage à Paris". "Sanglots" amounted to fifty shades of sorrow, all colored differentially.

The rest of the program was in Spanish, an excellent choice for this lovely Bolivian artist, and a treat for our ears which find the language as singable as Italian. The cadence of those two languages seems to dictate a most melodic vocal line and we noted that Ms. Hughes performed her own translations.

From Carlos López Buchardo's Canciones argentinas al estilo popular  we heard  the romantic "Vidalito". which conveyed, through the artist, the thrill of love with a touch of pain, as did "Desdichas de mi pasión" and "Jujeña". "Si los hallas" and "Frescas sombras" joined love and nature. Here we noticed how much we enjoyed Mr. Skowronek's light touch on the piano.

The final set, our favorite, comprised Dos Canciones Mexicanas by Manuel Ponce."Serenata Mexicana" is marked by simplicity and a momentary minor note in the piano, showing us that hopefulness is always tinged by anxiety. The famous "Estrellita" makes the anxiety a little more prominent whilst the hopefulness is there in the background. Ms. Hughes captured all the subtleties of the Latin soul.

© meche kroop

Wednesday, March 20, 2024


 Shan Hai, Sophia Baete, Steven Blier, Bénédicte Jourdois, Scott Rubén LaMarca, and Michael J. Hawk
(photo lifted from FB feed LOL)

What a special evening! Every concert presented by Steven Blier's New York Festival of Song is special but last night at Merkin Hall the concert was even more special than usual and turned us into a musical detective.  Let us explain. 

The encore piece, an a cappella one, enthralled us and we have spent the rest of the night trying to find a poem by Garcia Lorca that was set by 20th c. Spanish composer Manuel Oltra. Our internet sleuthing arrived at a dead end but we did find a madrigal that might have been the one, and if it's not it was close enough. For your listening delight, here is the link ...https://www.prestomusic.com/classical/products/8434650--madrigal  (We were unable to find the text in a listing of Garcia Lorca's poems.) 

The effect on us was an enchantment so profound that we failed to photograph the curtain call, as we usually do. Hence the forgivable (we hope) purloining of an uncredited photo on Facebook.  For this we apologize.

And now, Dear Reader, just know that in spite of some superb piano  accompaniment by the "tag team" of Mr. Blier, Bénédicte  Jourdois, and Amber Scherer for the "meat" of the concert, it is the encore piece that impressed us the most--like the sweetest dessert. The four voices blended so beautifully and expressed such delicious harmonies that no accompaniment could have added anything more.

The four exceptional vocalists comprised soprano Shan Hai, mezzo-soprano Sophia Baete, tenor Scott Rubén La Marca, and baritone Michael Hawk. The voices were all on point but what made the evening  more than usually successful was the artistic direction contributed by Ms. Jourdois. Instead of discrete numbers, the singers often introduced the following number by reciting the poetry or elucidating the meaning. This gave the evening a flow that made it seem much shorter than 90 minutes. It left us satisfied and yet yearning for more.

Whatever dramatic guidance the singers received, they picked it up and ran with it. Songs were brought to vivid life that drew the audience in. Let us share with you some of our favorites. We just couldn't keep from imagining how much fun Schubert may have had writing. "Die Liebesgötter" with text by Johann Peter Ute, who died before Schubert was born. In any case, Ms. Hai and Mr. La Marca had great fun bringing it to life.  How very expressive they were, capturing Schubert in a light-hearted mood!

Ms. Baete gave a beautiful performance of Eduardo Toldrà's "Madre uno ajuelitos vi" that touched the heart and Mr. Hawk achieved his finest moments in Cole Porter's "They Couldn't Compare to You" from the mid 20th c. Out of This World, also making good use of the talents of the other three artists.

This is just a taste of the glorious banquet spread before us last night. If you have never been to  NYFOS concert, Dear Reader, we hope our words have whetted your appetite. You can always count on discovering new songs, great voices, and also a bit of gender bending.

© meche kroop

Sunday, March 10, 2024


 Curtain Call at Arctic Exploration

Contemporary works often leave us bored or annoyed, and it takes something special to attract our attendance. The idea of an opera written about the search for a Northwest Passage aroused our curiosity and the opportunity to see four of the principles after a considerable gap in their New York City appearances presented an additional incentive. We were not disappointed although it was difficult to perceive Michael Dellaira's composition as a "folk opera".  Last week we reviewed an "oratorio" that seemed to us to be an opera and the work we saw last night seemed to be more of an oratorio.

Aside from seeing four artists that we had written about in the past, what we enjoyed most about Arctic Explorations was the theme of mankind's drive for discovery. We didn't need the Director's program notes to draw parallels with contemporary society's drive to conquer space. The price we pay for mankind's expansionist tendencies is the despoiling of nature.

The onstage presence of Inuit dance drummer and storyteller from Greenland (Nuka Alice) gave us something to think about since the survival of Inuit culture is threatened as much as that of the skinny starving polar bears we have all seen in photos and videos. Of course, one of the main raisons d'être of a work of art is to hold a mirror up to us and to make us think about issues.  Lately, current issues have been addressed in unmusical operas with prosy polemic scripts. Arctic Explorations was different.

There was a sequence of scenes telling the story of the mid-19th c. naval officer Elisha Kent Kane (believably portrayed by Colin Levin) . He was, at the behest of Present Zachary Taylor (a persuasive Michael Celentano) persuaded to search for the longed for Northwest Passage. President Taylor was, in turn, prevailed upon by Lady Jane Franklin (Erin Brittain) whose husband had gone in search of this Northwest Passage to connect the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific Ocean. He had never returned from this ice-blocked part of the world and she persuaded Taylor that the Unites States might succeed where Great Britain had failed, and lay claim to this vital channel that, as we understand it, could avoid the treacherous shipping route of "rounding The Horn".

Also exploring a different aspect of "the unknown" was Maggie Fox (the lovely soprano Nicole Haslett) who explored the world of "spirits" by running séances which were popular in this period of history. Ms. Fox was definitely connected to Kane although it is debatable whether they wed or not. Their letters found their way into the script.

It is to Mr. Dellaira's credit that the work led to a deep conversation with our companion for the evening and, furthermore, a considerable amount of reading online! Apparently, some artistic license was taken but nothing prevented our appreciation for this fascinating story.

Mr. Dellaira's music was pleasing and appealed to us most when it sounded like folk music. The instrumentals were provided by an onstage chamber group called The Harlem Chamber Players, an unusual septet comprising Clarinet (including our favorite instrument, the Bass Clarinet), Guitar, Banjo, Violin, Viola, Double Bass, and Percussion. We enjoyed the music and found the orchestration interesting in its varied textures.

The massive New Amsterdam Singers Chorus, led by Clara Longstreth since its founding 56 years ago ( ! ) did a considerable amount of heavy lifting which is one of the main reasons we thought of the piece as an oratorio. As a curtain raiser, they performed three works, one from the turn of the 17th c. and two contemporary pieces. We enjoyed the pianistic contributions of Pen Ying Fang in "Storyteller" by B.E. Boykin who set the text of a Tlingit poet named Ishmael Angaluuk Hope.

The director of Arctic Explorations was Kira Simring and the effective costuming was achieved by Danielle Hartley. The success of the evening can be attributed to the fine performances and direction that gave life to the story and the Harlem Chamber Players and New Amsterdam Singers Chorus that brought Michael Dellaira's music to life. The presence of Nuka Alice lent authenticity to the evening and we were gratified to learn how much she contributed to the realization.

And this reminds us to share one further thought about the work. The expedition of the British Franklin failed because they had contempt for the people who were native to Greenland.  The exploring party all died. That the American Kane returned alive can be attributed to his acceptance of help from the same people for whom Franklin had contempt. That we are all connected in this world of ours is a most important takeaway. At a time when divisiveness has infected our entire planet, it is vital that we learn to value and trust "the other", to share what we know and to learn to respect the viewpoints of others, even when we don't see things the same way.

(c) meche kroop

Saturday, March 9, 2024



Meghan Kasanders

Thanks to Carnegie Hall Citywide, New Yorkers were treated to another lovely vocal recital at St. Paul and St. Andrew United Methodist Church on the Upper West Side. Our only complaint was that it ended too soon. It left us wanting more.

We love what we do to support young singers in New York City, following them through their conservatory years and getting a thrill witnessing their respective stars on the rise. This is far easier when they remain in the area but most of them wind up leaving for Europe which seems to offer more opportunities, or they sing with companies in other cities, or join young artist programs.

And so it happened that our numerous reviews of dramatic soprano Meghan Kasanders are all from 5 to 7 years ago.  Although we missed witnessing the gradual evolution of her artistry, we got plenty of satisfaction from re-reading those reviews (available by typing her name in the search bar) and observing that we recognized her talent even when she was an undergraduate at Juilliard.

This gifted artist has taken everything she learned at Juilliard and all her experience winning awards and prizes, and added them to her naturally ebullient and engaging personality in order to craft an exciting career. Yesterday's recital was a fine taste, but we crave the entire vocal banquet of which she is more than capable of serving.

She opened her program with Sieben frühe Lieder by the early 20th c. composer Alban Berg. These seven songs are nowhere near as accessible as those of the 19th c. composers of art song. The harmonies are strange to an ear accustomed to those of the 19th c. and the melodies wander. With this in mind, we were impressed by the way Ms. Kasanders conveyed the mood. There is one song that always stands out for us--"Die Nachtigall" ;  we like the text by 19th c. poet Theodor Storm so much that we enjoy reading it aloud to appreciate the rhyming scheme and the iambic rhythm. Perhaps that is what inspired Berg to write a melody that remains in one's memory.

Nonetheless, we found much more to cherish in the set of songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff. We got the feeling that the artist really enjoys singing them. There is considerable variety which permitted dramatic interpretation-- from the frisky "The Ratcatcher" to the mournful. "Sing not to me, beautiful maiden", to the ecstatic and timely "Spring Waters". Our companion, who is fluent in Russian, granted a seal of approval.

The program ended with a humorous curiosity that struck a chord with every woman in the audience and gave the artist an opportunity to show off her comedic skills. We are not familiar with the composer Richard Pearson Thomas. who seems to have used as his text some Yelp ratings of hairstylists. He entitled the work Hair Emergency

The work encompasses five songs, each one relating the experience of the writer,  but with music adding another layer, that of emotion.  It was difficult to tell who was having more fun, Ms. Kasanders or the audience. We love to see an artist let go and immerse herself in storytelling; the overall impact was that of a woman telling a friend about her (mis)adventures at a hair salon. The facial expressions and gestures came across as spontaneous; however we suspect it involved a great deal of experimentation and coaching to achieve.

We have yet to say anything about the artist's vocal technique. When the technique is perfect, we get to focus on interpretation and connection. The singer becomes a conduit through which the audience can connect with the music and the text.When one is served a five-star meal, one doesn't think about whisking and tempering and searing!  

We can, however, say that Ms. Kasanders possesses an ample voice, one with pleasing tone and lots of overtones that filled the sanctuary of the performance space. We could definitely see her in Verdi roles and we think she'd make a fine Sieglinde, which just so happens to be our favorite character in Wagner's The Ring Cycle.

At the risk of repeating ourself, it is quite a thrill to hear an artist achieving the potential that was recognized years ago!  We are still smiling.

Collaborative pianist for the recital was Dror Baitel, also a graduate of Juilliard (Doctoral Program) who will probably be familiar to those of you who love Broadway shows.

© meche kroop

Thursday, March 7, 2024



Curtain Call at Classic Lyric Arts Concert

Just as we love watching young singers develop their artistry, we love watching an institution grow in ambition, reach, scope, and impact. We have been watching Classic Lyric Arts grow for a number of years and attended their gala soirées at The Kosciuszko Foundation. We have been introduced to so many fine young singers and have interviewed them about their experiences at the immersive summer programs in Italy and in France. We have watched them expand their summer programs to include an intensive exploration of Mozart operas in the Berkshires. We have heard nothing but enthusiasm and never heard a word of disappointment.

We have also witnessed the growth of their faculty to include master teacher of dramatic arts Daniel Isengart.  Founder and Artistic Director Glenn Morton is a highly esteemed faculty member of all three music conservatories in New York. The Executive Director John Viscardi was one of their first graduates of CLA Italy in 2009. Enjoying a brilliant worldwide career himself, he is in a unique position to guide young artists toward professional success.

Mr. Isengart, resident stage director and performance coach for CLA, has enjoyed a brilliant career performing cabaret, teaching, and coaching. We have been fortunate enough to observe his coaching, watching singers embellish their performances by means of imagination and involvement.

Last night, in celebration of their 15th anniversary, CLA presented a concert at Merkin Hall of the Kaufman Music Center. An announcement was made that brought us enormous joy. CLA is expanding yet again and initiating a year round academy which will help bridge conservatory training and professional careers for emerging singers.

By now, Dear Reader, you are probably impatient to hear about the concert itself and we will not disappoint you. Everyone onstage was connected with Mr. Morton as a former student, current student, or future student. To inspire the young singers we had performances of two stars of the worldwide stage, both "on loan" from The Metropolitan Opera and both accompanied by Mr. Morton.

Could anyone portray a more beguiling daughter working on her father than Nadine Sierra performing "O mio babino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi! We loved the way she extended and colored the "pietà".

Tenor SeokJong Baek thrilled the audience with his "Nessun dorma" from Puccini's Turandot. We loved his pianissimo and the manner in which he grew the sound to a dramatic conclusion. 

A highlight of the evening was a chorale work conducted by Michael Sheetz  in which everyone participated. It was the New York premiere of  Le parole dei mesi composed by Raphael Fusco who is on the faculty of CLA Italy. Thankfully, Mr. Fusco was unaffected by the awful tendencies of contemporary composition. The work was gloriously melodic and  had twelve sections, one for each month and involved a delightful interweaving of vocal lines for each fach and sufficient variety to hold one's interest from capo to fine. 

We would love to tell you about all of the sixteen scenes but let us focus instead on the overall picture, created by Mr. Isengart. The young artists entered the stage in pairs or triplets, a few at a time and took up positions that were visually interesting and fluid.  Some sat, some stood. Their attention was directed unwaveringly toward whomever was performing. This focus served to increase the focus of the audience as well.

Since all of the performances achieved excellence it is difficult to choose just a few to illustrate the dramatic impact of the staging but we will try, hoping that none of the dozens of singers participating will feel slighted.

In. "Dunque io son" from Rossini'a Il barbiere di Siviglia, soprano Sarah Fleiss showed great spunk as the wily Rosina, confronting her "jailer" Bartolo played by Jared Bybee. When the scenery and costumes appear in your mind's eye we know the singers are "doing it right".  And this pair succeeded.

The intimate connection between Norina (Yvette Keong) and Ernesto (Philippe L'Esperance) in Donizetti's Don Pasquale was deliciously convincing.

Whilst soprano Eliza Masewicz and mezzo-soprano Monique Galvao were performing the exquisite duet "Dôme épais" from Delibes' Lakme, the facial expression and body language told us everything we needed to know about the warm relationship between the two women.

We must mention the perfect French diction of Sara Stevens and John Viscardi expressing the ecstasy  of "Nous vivrons à Paris"  from Massenet's Manon.

The staging for the famous quartet of Verdi's Rigoletto was particularly well done. We have heard this quartet too many times so it was a distinct pleasure to be shown an iteration that held our interest. Soprano Sofia Gotch, stood on a chair as if she were peering through a window watching the seductive Maddalena (Ms. Galvao) working her womanly wiles on the all too receptive Duke (Mr. L'Esperance) whilst Rigoletto (Suchan Kim) shares her pain, plus anger of his own. 

There were three scenes from Offenbach's Les Contes d'Hoffmann, all well staged. The one that lingers in our mind is from the act in which Antonia's mother (mezzo-soprano Alexandra Olson Andersen) is presented as a spirit, standing on a chair with a veil over her head, urging her daughter (soprano Sara Mortensen) to sing.  Of course, her image has been conjured by the evil Dr. Miracle (Mr. Kim). Antonia collapses dead into the arms of two men and is carried offstage. Very powerful!

Another scene from the same opera involved the famous barcarolle "Belle nuit", gorgeously sung by soprano Maia Sumanaweera and mezzo-soprano Rosario Armas, alumni of CLA.

We have run out of room but must mention the scene from Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in which the suspicious Count (baritone Kevin Douglas Jasaitis) gets outwitted by the clever Susanna (Temple Hammen). and his flustered wife (Johanna Will). Mr. Isengart's staging made full use of the playing area and made it easy to imagine the locked closet and all the shenanigans.

We must here mention the marvelous accompaniment by several pianists in "tag team" mode (Luc Xu Cheng, Shaobai Yuan, Lana Norris, Javor Bračic, Marianna Vartikian, Michael Sheetz, Hong Ziyi, Zihan Wang, and Vladimir Soloviev, reminding us that CLA also trains collaborative pianists!

We always have a quibble. We wanted a second act!!!!  The 90 minute program whetted our appetite for more. We own the sin of greed. We hope. there won't be too long a wait for another concert in which CLA can show off their latest success.

© meche kroop

Saturday, March 2, 2024


Curtain Call at Premiere of Emigré
(Photo by Chris Lee)

The project began with a co-commission for an oratorio by The New York Philharmonic and Maestro Long Yu of the Shanghai Symphony Orchestra. Emigré  premiered in Shanghai last November and had its American premiere last night in the Wu Tsai Theater at Lincoln Center. Perhaps an oratorio was requested of composer Aaron Zigman and librettists Mark Campbell and Brock Walsh; but what they got was a music theater piece with one foot in the opera house and the other on Broadway.

We think of an oratorio as a sacred work performed concert style without sets, costumes, or acting. The only sacred moments in Emigré  were the first few when the New York Philharmonic Chorus sang phrases from the Hebrew Kaddish and a Buddhist prayer. That the work is dramatic is all to the good since music theater moves us more than music alone.

For this dramatic success, credit goes to Director Mary Birnbaum who did a fine job of telling the story with nothing more than the strip of stage in front of the massive forces of the New York Philharmonic and a small area in front of the equally massive forces of The New York Philharmonic Chorus on the level above, plus the stairways connecting the two.

The story is well worth telling. In two visits to The People's Republic of China, we never learned that Shanghai played host to Jewish refugees fleeing The Holocaust. That China suffered a holocaust of their own at the hands of the Japanese during WW II was, however, known to us from films such as Spielberg's Empire of the Sun and history books describing the Rape of Nanking.

For us there is great appeal in a work of art that meets our "Three E Requirements". We want to be entertained, educated, and enlightened. Emigré hit the mark. However, our preference would be to see it in a medium-sized opera house in which the excellent opera singers could be heard unamplified, with a small orchestra. The piece could also work on Broadway although we detest amplification.

However, that was not what was intended by the commission; it is just our preference. We are well acquainted with some of the singers, somewhat familiar with the others; all deserve to be heard better which is impossible with orchestral and choral forces of such magnitude.

The story concerns two brothers fleeing Germany for Shanghai after Kristallnacht, understandably devastated by leaving their parents behind. Otto (tenor Matthew White) is religious and bonds with a rabbi (bass-baritone Andrew Dwan) whose daughter Tovah (soprano Diana Newman) welcomes him and sings the lovely "In a Woman's Hands".

Josef (tenor Arnold Livingston Geis) is a young doctor who wanders into a Chinese pharmaceutical shop, eager to learn about Chinese medicine. He experiences an instant and mutual attraction with the doctor's daughter Lina Song (soprano Meigui Zhang). Her father (bass-baritone Shenyang) is rejecting but older sister Li  (mezzo-soprano Huiling Zhu) is more sympathetic.

The couple have a lovely courtship in the Yu Garden and an equally lovely song "In a Perfect World". All is well until Shanghai isolates the Jews in a ghetto and, since the couple defied their family's wishes and became man and wife, there is nowhere for them to go.

Here we have a situation just made for opera--political issues driven home and made personal by romantic consequences. Just think of all the situations in the world today in which love is made difficult or impossible by barriers of one sort or another.  Consider the plight of displaced people with nowhere to go.  Think of the heavy cost of cultural insularism and fear of "the other". This work touched so many bases for us and probably had many audience members talking about it afterward.

As far as the music is concerned, there is plenty of variation of styles--what one might call eclecticism. There was nothing excruciatingly "post-modern" about it and we found it accessible. Composer Aaron Zigman has written scores for film and television and has orchestrated for jazz and popular singers.

The libretto by Mark Campbell, whilst not quite as wonderful as the one he wrote for The ( R ) evolution of Steve Jobs,  has avoided the trap of long prosy lines but in keeping the phrases short and rhyming, the effect verged on doggerel at times.  The lyrics contributed by songwriter Brock Walsh were more than usually accessible.

Maestro Long Yu commanded the aforementioned "massive forces" with aplomb and Chorus Master Malcolm J. Merriweather ensured that every word was comprehensible. We consider it rather a miracle to have achieved this degree of clarity  with such a huge chorus.

Projections by Joshua Higgason were notable for being apropos and non- intrusive. There were stills and film clips in black and white of street scenes and battle scenes from China during WW II, as well as colorful Chinese symbols. Titles were projected overhead but rarely needed since everyone's diction was clear.

Our only disappointment was that these excellent singers were not given the opportunity to show their superlative voices. Audience members who had never heard them on the opera stage missed what we cherish in our memories of prior performances.

We walked home deep in thought about all the issues brought up by the work. We had a couple hours of entertainment and quite a bit of education and enlightenment. We enjoy doing the work of seeing something historical and comparing it with what is going on in the world today. So many directors these days deprive us of that participation.

© meche kroop