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.

Wednesday, April 10, 2024

A PARABLE FOR OUR TIME

 


The cast of Viktor Ullman's Der Kaiser Von Atlantis

Citizens of the United States are prone to taking much for granted. Among the many rights and privileges we possess, one of the most important is that of freedom of artistic expression. With a few exceptions, like desecrating the flag or saying scurrilous things about minorities, artists are free to hold a mirror up to society and to show us what we tend to avoid or deny. Fascist dictators (is that redundant?) exert total control over music, art, and theater to present an idealized and dishonest view of society. Those that expose the lies are silenced, imprisoned, or killed.

 Viktor Ullman's opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis, was composed in 1943 in the Nazi showcase concentration camp Terezin, with libretto by Peter Kien.  The opera was seen in rehearsal after which both men were hustled off to Auschwitz and tragically exterminated.  The opera has been produced in Europe but has been rather neglected in New York with the exception of a production by Opera Moderne in 2012 and one in 2015 by Juilliard Opera Theater.

The tragic circumstances of two talented lives cut short lends import to a work that easily stands on its own.  For this, we thank Ullman's fellow prisoners who managed to rescue the work when Terezin was liberated as well as the spiritualist who purportedly communicated with Ullman's ghost in finishing the instrumentation!  For bringing the work to life this week  we thank Manhattan School of Music Graduate Opera Theatre.

Now, what about the work itself?   Ullman's music is at times rather jazzy, referencing composers of many periods. Although we have heard it scored for and played by 13 instrumentalists, including a saxophone, a banjo and a harmonium, we heard it performed last night by two pianists (Eric Sedgwick and Anya Gershtein) and a percussionist (Tarun Bellur).  Under the musical direction of Djordje Nesic, it never sounded 
boring or "academic".   

It's a one act piece of great cynicism which makes one think of Brecht and Weill.
The story is an ironic one in which the Kaiser (a stand-in for Hitler) tries to co-opt Death which results in Death taking a holiday.  No one dies.  The world is filled with the walking dead.  A better image for prisoners in a concentration camp could not be imagined!  In the middle of this, a soldier and a girl find love.  At the end, Death takes the life of the Kaiser.

With great appreciation for the direction of John de los Santos assisted by Daniel Isengart, we were not forced to make the obvious connection with the threat of a would-be dictator in our own midst, nor was the point driven home by having the Kaiser sport a Hitlerian mustache. Nor were the subjects wearing striped pajamas.  The audience was wisely left to make their own connections. This always draws us into the work whereas overly explicit references or attempts to make a work "relevant" tend to push us away.

The cast was uniformly excellent. Kaiser Overall was played by Gregory Gropper whilst the role of Death was performed by Donghoon Kang who recently received a well-deserved major award from Opera Index. The role of Der Lautsprecher, the Kaiser's mouthpiece, was well performed by Brian Linares and the part of Der Trommler was taken by Morena Galán, whose undergraduate work at Mannes College of Music we followed with great interest. 

There was a moving scene with more lyrical music  performed by Samantha Noonan and Scott Rubén La Marca (recently seen as the fickle Count Belfiore when the MSM Graduate Opera Theater produced Mozart's La Finta Giardiniera).  Both begin as enemy soldiers trying to kill each other; but since Death was taking a holiday, they wind up loving each other--an optimistic note in a dark story.

Also remembered from La Finta Giardiniera was Victoria Magnusson who excelled as Harlequin, much as she won us over in the role of Serpetta in the Mozart. Rounding out the production was Margaux Frohlich who did an independent study project (with Benjamin Sokol) on the artists, actors, and musicians who were interred at Terezin. We believe it was she who gave a short speech at the conclusion of the opera about her ancestors who were victims of Nazi brutality.  As if the work was not sufficiently powerful!

What word could we use to describe our experience? "Entertained" is far too light-hearted. It might be more accurate to say that we were shaken and driven to think about the many places in the world today, some in our very own hemisphere, where dictators manage to enslave a populace. It doesn't matter whether we call their regimes "Fascist" or "Communist" or "Religious Fundamentalist"; they all have the same goal of concentration of power in the person of a sociopath with the result that the people suffer. Let us not think that we are immune. Democracy must be fought for to be won and vigorously supported to be maintained.

Should you be fortunate enough to find a ticket for tonight's performance, do not fail to read the historical background provided by Heather O'Donovan's essay.

© meche kroop


Saturday, April 6, 2024

THE EXTINCTIONIST


Philip Stoddard and Katherine Henley

(photo by Russ Rowland) 

 





                                                                                                
                Katherine Henley and Claire Leyden

                 (photo by Russ Rowland). 

  

How interesting that our companion for the evening (an opera singer) came up with the same thought as we did at the conclusion of Heartbeat Opera's production of The Extinctionist. "This would have made a great play!" Upon return home we took a look at the program for the first time, only to learn that the work was adapted from a play by Amanda Quaid!  She wrote the libretto for this work, which is the first commission ever made by this risk-taking company.

There seemed to be two interwoven themes at play. One was a woman's fear of bringing a child into a dying world and the other theme being marital discord over the issue of starting a family. Fortunately, the play is not polemic and leaves the audience to decide for themselves. Good theater makes us think. We have heard that art is a mirror that gets us to see ourselves plainly.

Th woman in the story is well performed by Katherine Henly and her ambivalence about pregnancy resulted in palpable anguish. That she is the only character who feels threatened by catastrophic global warming makes us focus on her dilemma. On the one hand, a potential child comes to her in her dreams and we learn that she and her best friend, winningly played by Claire Leyden, had long planned to get pregnant at the same time (as did two sisters of our acquaintance). On the other hand, she is terrified by what she alone perceives as the end of the world as we know it.

A meeting between the two women had our main character shocked and distanced by her friend's rapture at being pregnant. "How could anyone bring a child into the dying world?"--a thought we ourself have shared.

The woman and her husband had been trying to achieve pregnancy for some time and one gathers that they may have married believing that they both wanted the same thing. The husband, ( played by Philip Stoddard) is not exactly sympathetic.

The most awkward scene we have ever seen onstage was the woman being given a pelvic exam by her gynecologist and later given a diagnosis which we will not reveal. We do wish the production team had consulted  a genuine doctor as we found a couple inaccuracies in the dialogue and action; but perhaps the scenes with the physician (played by Eliam Ramos) were meant to be the woman's perception, rather than reality.

The work was well directed by Shade Ghaheri and Kate Noll's scenic design was stunning.  The couple's bedroom was tasteful and modern, indicating that they were financially comfortable. It occupied one side of the wide stage whilst the other side served at times as a living area and at others as a gynecologists examining room. Bare trees and dying plants were scattered about the stage.  Reza Behjat's lighting design subtly contributed to the mood of each scene  Projection design by Camilla Tassi was apt, as is seldom the case. Scenes of weather disasters served to remind us what stirred the woman's anxiety. Costume design by Haydee Zelideth and Asa Benally was apt. The child puppet, created by Afsaneh Aayani, was adorable.

So, Dear Reader, as drama it worked.  But, and this is a big but, this was billed as an opera. Was the music good? Yes, it was. Dan Schlosberg's original composition for piano, violin, viola, electric guitar and percussion would make an excellent curtain raiser on any symphonic program. 

Although the instrumentals served to heighten the mood, the vocal lines were entirely unmusical. We wondered how the cast managed to learn their parts. And to sing with such excellent diction! This is a common feature of contemporary operas and the reason that they are rarely seen a second time. We want to leave the opera humming a melody.  Our brains are programmed to want this!

It is likely that some of you, Dear Reader, will disagree with us and that is fine. We all attend live events for different reasons. We would just as soon have seen the play.


© meche kroop





Friday, April 5, 2024

THE OTHER CINDERELLA

 


Sara Zerilli, Charlotte Jakobs, Chun-Wei Kang, Ariana Troxell-Layton, Jennifer Robinson, A. Scott Parry, Vincenzo Fiorito, Brandon Pencheff-Martin, and Jacob Soulliere

We have long thought that the best opera composers would be former-singers. With their knowledge of the voice and how it is best utilized, they would know how to highlight the singers' gifts and how not to write music that is awkward and difficult to sing.

Proof of the proverbial pudding could be found at last night's production by Manhattan School of Music Undergraduate Opera Theatre, a performance of Pauline Viardot's one-hour take on the familiar fairy tale, a pure Gallic bonbon, written to be performed in her home by her very own students. For once, the Director's Notes taught us something, instead of the usual justifications for the director's distortion of the given work. 

This one hour opera was written in the mid 1860's  and performed in the early 20th c.  by Viardot's  students when she was rather advanced in years, having retired from the stage. None of the sadistic parts of the Perrault fairytale were in evidence, nor any of the Disneyfied padding. This was a simple story of a neglected young woman whose good heart wins the affection of a prince, even though she doesn't know his identity. And it's also the story of a grasping family that has scapegoated her. Her kindness wins out in the end.

We had the thought that Ms. Viardot wished to exemplify the values of the French Revolution (Liberté, égalité, fraternité) as well as the Christian values of charity and humility.  Only Marie (splendidly sung by Ariana Troxell-Layton who colored her fine soprano instrument  with sweetness) has compassion for the beggar who comes to the door. He is, of course, the Prince in disguise; the role was well acted and admirably sung by Vincenzo Fiorito.

In contrast, the two step-sisters were portrayed as entitled "Karens", not particularly evil, just self-centered and grasping. Soprano Charlotte Jakobs as Maguelonne and mezzo-soprano Sara Zerilli as Armelinde made the most of their roles, employing facial expression and body movement to tell us everything we needed to know about their characters. 

Soprano Jennifer Robinson was everything one could hope for in the role of Marie's Fairy Godmother, demonstrating a stratospheric coloratura instrument of crystalline purity which she colored with benevolence. The scene between Marie and La Fée delighted us; hearing two such fine sopranos gave us hope for the future of opera.

Similarly, the tender duet when Marie and Le Prince fall in love was melodic and emotionally touching.

Marie's stepfather was portrayed as a former dishonest merchant who has risen in status to that of Baron Pictordu. We did not quite catch how that was accomplished but there was a reference in the libretto that must have been a secret joke in Ms. Viardot's circle. His part was well performed by baritone Jacob Soulliere and the role of the Royal Chamberlain, who gets to be Prince for a Day, was performed by tenor Brandon Pencheff-Martin.

We were delighted, not only by the fine youthful voices, but also by the staging. Director A. Scott Parry had the audience laughing when Marie, instructed by La Fée to produce a pumpkin, struggled to carry it; it was thrown out the window and its conversion into a coach was suggested by sound effects, allowing the audience to use their imagination. When instructed to produce some mice, Marie distastefully produces a couple mouse traps with the requisite presumably dead mice (more laughter) which were also thrown out of the window to become horses. Isn't imagination wonderful!

The set was minimalistic as were the costumes. Everyone wore black  with some simple accessorizing like The Baron's bathrobe and La Fée's scarf given to Marie to magically create a gown.

Four years ago we attended this precious jewel of an opera presented by City Lyric Opera with a chamber orchestra. We remember loving the instrumentation but did not miss it last night due to the fine pianism of Music Director Chun-Wei Kang. We would also like to throw a bouquet to Elsa Quéron who coached the French diction. It is remarkable that we understood the language even at the highest register!  Now that's something unusual! Still, projected titles were on hand for those who do not speak French.

In sum it was so fine that we would happily see it again tonight but last night was the last performance.  We cannot believe that these were undergraduates!


© meche kroop


Thursday, April 4, 2024

THE CROSSROADS OF A BRILLIANT CAREER


Jiwon Park, Luna Seongeun Park, and Zhedong Ren

There is something so special about a vocal graduation recital. The young artists get to show off everything they have learned at the conservatory.  Generally, several languages are included as well as a variety of composers and styles. Last night, a sizable audience braved the storm to celebrate with the lovely soprano Luna Seongeun Park who is receiving her Master in Music degree from Mannes College of Music.  She chose well among her colleagues to join the celebration. There was excellent collaborative pianist Jiwon Park, violinist Joseph Jin who joined her for some charming Korean songs, and tenor Zhedong Ren who took the role of the seductive Duke in a duet from Verdi's Rigoletto.

But it was Ms. Park who was the star and centerpiece of the evening. Her tutelage at Mannes  (under the expert guidance of master teacher Arthur Levy) is coming to an end.  But just look at what this lovely young lady has in store. She has already been accepted at Juilliard Vocal Arts as a candidate for an Artists Diploma. She will be singing this summer at the Verbier Festival.  She has received many awards, including a substantial one from Opera Index.

The recital was not just an exciting event for Ms. Park and her parents, who flew in from Korea for the occasion. It was an artistic success and a worthwhile reward for those who braved the inclement weather. She opened with a trio of songs by Richard Strauss which well suited her brilliant soprano instrument. She tossed off the challenging notes at the upper register with abandon. Well, that was the effect, although we know how much serious study it involved. 

"Der Pokal" was performed with bright ringing tone and all of the excitement of a festive toast. In contrast, "Glückes genug" was given a gentle romantic coloring. Our favorite was "Allerseelen" which, when well sung, as it was, fills us with a sweet melancholy. Ms. Park seemed to caress the initial consonants to great effect and employed dynamic variation to enhance the mood. It also offered the pianist a gorgeous introduction.

The songs of Clara Schumann should appear on more programs and we were glad to hear three of them. In "Die stille Lotosblume" she seemed to be completely immersed in the imagery of the song and we wondered if it were one of her favorites.

We have never seen Dominick Argento's opera Postcard from Morocco and, having read about it, probably never will. However, as a stand alone piece, "Lady with a Hand Mirror" offered Ms. Park an opportunity to create a humorous character and to use a very fine trill in the process.  We could envision this as a great encore piece.

Quatre chansons de jeunesse by Debussy reminded us of Impressionism combined with Surrealism. "Pantomime" was given a playful twist.  "Clair de lune" involved some impressive staccato passages. "Pierrot" gave the pianist an opportunity to play a familiar melody and gave the singer a lovely vocalise. We enjoyed the ecstatic "Apparition".

Violinist Joseph Jin joined the pair onstage for two sweet Korean art songs that were filled with tender plaintive melodies and produced the emotional state of sehnsucht, best translated perhaps as longing. The Korean language certainly sings beautifully, even if one doesn't understand the words. We suspect the composer Wonju Lee is contemporary because, as we have learned from other Korean singers, the tradition of art songs did not begin until after the Japanese occupation.

The final piece on the program was the Act I duet between the seductive Duke (sung by tenor Zhedong Ren) and the lovestruck Gilda. Mr. Ren's voice harmonized beautifully with Ms. Park's once he overcame her astonishment at his unexpected appearance and some shy reluctance. We enjoyed this duet so much and we wished Ms. Park had continued on with the "Caro nome". Well, that leaves us something to look forward to!

Of course, an encore was demanded by the audience and it was another lovely Korean song with the typical accessible melody, beautifully sung and accompanied by some stirring arpeggi in the piano. A fine ending to a lovely recital!

© meche kroop

Wednesday, April 3, 2024

EUGENE ONEGIN (the Cliff Notes)


 Edwin Joseph and Emily Margevich
(photo by Russ Rowland)

Last night at the Baruch Performing Arts Center, we attended the premiere of Tchaikovsky's heartbreaking opera Eugene Onegin, performed by Heartbeat Opera (no relation);  at least we heard a 100 minute adaptation of the opera. The co-adaptors were Director Dustin Willis and Artistic Director Jacob Ashworth who also conducted the chamber orchestra.

We have been writing about Heartbeat Opera since their inception ten years ago (under different leadership-- by Louisa Proske and Ethan Heard). They have always put a unique spin on the classics, some of which thrilled us and some of which dismayed us or puzzled us.  This production had some very rewarding moments, some insightful ones, and some puzzling ones.

Chief among the delights was the singing. Soprano Emily Margevich made a believable and touching Tatyana. In the lengthy letter scene, she showed us all the unbridled passion of an adolescent girl with all of  its concomitant terrors. She reminded us of Juliet in the early scenes of the ballet version of Romeo and Juliet, almost dancing around her bedroom, trying to put her wild thoughts into words. It was a commendable performance.

As the "older man" she falls in love with (probably an older man of twenty-five) we found baritone Edwin Joseph thoroughly believable and as fine in his singing as was Ms. Margevich.

Flirtatious sister Olga was finely realized by the excellent mezzo-soprano Sichel Claverie and as Olga's devoted fiancé and childhood sweetheart Lensky, we thought tenor Roy Hage performed admirably, delivering a poignant "Kuda, Kuda". Also fine were Shannon Delijani as Madame Larina and Tynan Davis as Filipyevna, the nursemaid. Rounding out the cast was Lloyd Reshard, Jr as Prince Gremin.  More about him later.

Spoiler Alert! If you plan on seeing this production, and we hope that you do, you may want to stop reading here, especially if you are new to this standard of the Russian repertory. One difficulty for us was making the effort to block our memories of prior productions and comparing them. Still, we couldn't help seeing the falling Autumn leaves as Madame Larina and Filipyevna peeled apples or potatoes in the opening scene nor could we not hear in our mind's ear the chorus of peasants in the background, here omitted.

In this production, the nearly bare set made use of wooden frames and planks, metal step-ladders, and reams of fabric. One could see right through the performing area to a kind of workshop/storage room "backstage". The two older women were busy doing something we couldn't make out and Madame Larina appeared to be pouring something from a flask and drinking.  Vodka perhaps.

For the name-day scene, a raised platform was erected right in front of the audience with an abundant buffet set up upon it. Olga, dressed as a clown, sings the aria usually sung by the French tutor Monsieur Triquet. At this point, the chamber orchestra (comprising strings, French Horn, Clarinet doubling on Bass Clarinet, Harp, and Guitar) goes mad, out of tune and cacophonous with electric amplification. Perhaps this is to mark the flip from pleasant drama to tragedy as Olga flirts with Onegin, angering Lensky who then challenges Onegin to a duel.

Equally. puzzling was in the final act, when Prince Gremin sings his aria into a microphone (!) and then is wheeled off like a dressmaker's dummy (!!).

There are a number of liberties taken with the opera, chief among which is the subtext of a homosexual relationship between the two men. Was this "concept" suggested by the director? It is no secret that Tchaikovsky was homosexual and that he himself received a letter from a pupil whom he later married to no good effect. But does that mean that his stories have a homosexual subtext? There are a few scenes between the two men that were unconvincing and if Mr. Willis wanted to persuade us that Lensky's jealousy was directed differently than in the Pushkin verse novel upon which the opera is based, he failed.

There were several other puzzling episodes. What was the intent of having Maestro Jacob Ashworth interact with the singers, at times abandoning his post, so to speak? And watching the singers participating as stage hands constructing and dismantling the set?

The final scene, in which Onegin tries to persuade Tatyana of his love, is staged in a frame, reminding us of a marionette theater. The rest of the cast and some of the musicians are watching. When she bids him to get up, it is not an Onegin begging for her love, but an Onegin who has pressed her to the floor and lain on top of her. And then, off to the side, a bereft Onegin is cradling the dead Lensky in his arms.

Those puzzling moments aside, a good case could be made for an abridged version of the opera. Tchaikovsky's libretto uses much of Pushkin's text from the latter's verse novel, but he also altered certain things which one could learn from reading the original. So the current revision is not an insult. However it would have been better had it made theatrical sense. 

As far as the alteration of the music, lots of classical works have been altered or re-orchestrated and symphonic works have been reduced; we were not disappointed in this case.  As much as we love the orchestral original, the arrangement was interesting and the melodies we know and love were preserved. We cannot tell from the program who was responsible since the program indicates  Dan Schlosberg under "newly arranged".   Our guess is that Mo. Ashworth newly arranged the music and Mr. Schlosberg might have newly arranged the libretto with "co-adaptors" Mr. Willis and Mr. Ashworth.

We spoke to some women after the performance, women who had never seen or heard the opera. They loved it. Much can be said for a "virgin experience".

© meche kroop

Sunday, March 31, 2024

MASTERFUL


 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

EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE


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

TWO SINGERS BOTH ALIKE IN ARTISTRY






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

THREE CHEERS FOR EROS


 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

ARCTIC (and other) EXPLORATIONS


 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

SHORT BUT SWEET

 


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