Thursday, December 11, 2014

Harford Chorale Impresses with Messiah



‘Tis the season for performances of Handel’s Messiah

Of all the possibilities over the next few weeks, I chose to attend the performance by The Hartford Chorale, featuring musicians from the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in the Mortensen Hall, at the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts. I was not alone in this decision. In spite of a cold and rainy spell in the region, a huge audience was on hand.

The event, conducted by Music Director Richard Coffey, presented most of the massive score written by Handel. Don’t take this for granted…many performances cut the score to ribbons. The narrative of each of the Oratorio’s three parts was clear in this performance.

The Hartford Chorale astonished. They articulated the tricky English texts with great clarity. The words could always be understood without referring to the program. “And the glory of the Lord” was sung with wave upon wave of sound, and in this music about “revealing” the Chorale revealed colors and textures that often remain hidden.

Coffey is a conductor who can teach through sound itself, and this was a detailed and thoughtful performance. As an example, conductors often focus too much on the presence of subjects in vocal fugues. Occurrences of fugue subjects become highlighted like sentences in a freshman’s textbook. Coffey kept the subjects working within the larger contrapuntal framework, so that we could also hear all the voices around them. The contrapuntal music sounded fresh.

The first significant arrival in Messiah is the chorus “Glory to God.” It is the first time the trumpets play, and Coffey placed the trumpets in the balcony so that we were surrounded by sound. It was a thrilling and memorable moment.

The pacing and dance-like tempos of the movements helped articulate larger patterns in the music, and that is what made the closing of each major section of the work sound so satisfying. Given the complex compositional engineering of this work, every connection needs to be plugged in for the lights to glow. Following tradition, the entire audience stood during the Halleluiah Chorus. It is wonderful to hear an audience spontaneously join in and sing this iconic music, and for a second time during the evening we were enclosed in sound from all directions. People were beaming.

The soloists, soprano Meechot Marrero, mezzo-soprano Kathleen Reveille, tenor Ting Li, and bass-baritone Brad Walker, are from the Yale Opera Program, and these young voices all impressed by filling the hall with  sound. Their musical fluency and vocal presence was uplifting in itself. Walker was particularly impressive during “The trumpet shall sound,” where he brought resonant vocal power and strong conviction to the moment.

But the crowd favorite was Marrero. She sang elegant lines in warm colors and always seemed to edge the right words at the right time. Her coloratura was clean and pitched in the center of each note. She was always convincing. Be on the lookout for opportunities to hear her sing.

The most famous musical moments of Messiah seem ever-present at this time of year. This was the kind of performance that reminds us that the familiar beautiful within our lives can still sparkle.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

A Review of "Horn Discoveries" by Sarah Willis


Sarah Willis, Kotowa Machida, and Philip Mayers 

A new recording by Sarah Willis is a welcome occasion. Willis has developed a powerful presence on the classical music scene for her innovative and charismatic interviews, commentaries, live chats, and other televisionary productions. But she is a musician first, and her new recording called “Horn Discoveries,” is a worthy addition to her discography.

It is no simple matter to program newly written works. One has little ability to predict the final shape, complexity, quirks, or ultimately the personality of the music one requests. How can one be certain of the way they will share space on a recording? Willis worked with close colleagues and friends and was comfortable enough with each person to make very specific requests and/or alterations. The end result is a recording that has a pleasing shape, centered on the horn trio medium but spiced with works for horn and piano, and for two horns.  

The most exciting work was saved for last. Mason Bates is a composer on the rise. His works, often featuring electronica and unusual percussion parts, are beginning to making the rounds. I reviewed his work “Alternative Energy” as performed by the Hartford Symphony last spring.

The opening movement of the Bates work on this recording, called “Mainframe Topics,” was woven from colorful rhythmic threads pulled tight in ideas that develop fluently into refreshing and often surprising directions. The first movement connects directly into a lyrical interlude called “Marine Snow” in which the interplay of lyrical lines is entrancing and the high horn writing (and playing) is quite lovely. The transformation of ideas in the final movement is successful and entertaining. This is a significant work, like others by this composer, and is a solid addition to the horn trio literature.

I was also fond of the five short works written for two horns by Klaus Wallendorf. Wallendorf is a longtime member of the horn section of the Berliner Philharmoniker, and a gifted composer and arranger. He speaks numerous languages and is clever and funny in all of them. Like his verbal virtuosity, these five short pieces for horn duet move in and out of idioms fluently. Behind the references and puns is an almost hidden planning and sophistication. They are each built well. To listen carefully is to smile.

The recording includes six arrangements of famous short works, each rethought for horn trio by David Riniker. Riniker is a Swiss cellist who been a member of the cello section of the Berlin Philharmonic since 1995.

Often the most familiar tunes are taken for granted. So are arrangements of them. But Riniker has arranged each with imagination. The famous “Melodie” by Tchaikovsky is the final movement of his Souvenir d'un lieu cher (Memory of a place beloved), written during a two-week stay at a residence of his patroness Nadezhda von Meck. She was not there. The two loved the dance of suggestion and anticipation. They never met.

The transcription is set in the same key as the original for violin and piano. The horn sings the opening melodic phrase, then the violin takes over, but the interplay between the original and the adaptation is effective.

Tchaikovsky’s Nocturne, Op.19 No. 4 that follows is transposed to D minor. There is a short cadenza prior to the tempo I, and the closing moments are thinned. Listen for the piano line, it sounds fresh and surprising because the role of the piano was submerged to give the horn room.

The Dvořák “Humoreske” Op. 101 No. 7, was transposed up a half-step to G major.  The interlude is rich and lovely in arrangement, and the performance is joyful. The horn solo at the più lento is strong and bold. The final presentation of the famous tune is tasty.

The arrangement of the “Romance de Nadir” from the Bizet’s opera “Les pêcheurs des perles” is an opportunity to hear how the horn can produce long lyrical lines filled with vocal expression. Willis plays the line simply and allows its energy to unfold slowly the way the best singers would.

The arrangement of “Clair de lune” by Debussy is a great example of how the piece should be performed in its original piano solo version. Debussy notated stretched time into the score, so very little needs to be stretched beyond it. Listen and learn.

In the final arrangement of L'Abeille (The Bee) from the Op. 13 collection for violin and piano by François (not Franz!!) Schubert. Willis proves that the horn can “bee” with the best of them.

The recording opens with “Song of a New World” by Richard Bissill, who was Principal Horn of the London Philharmonic Orchestra from 1984-2009 and is now Principal Horn of the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.

The construction of the work seems flawed. The music returns too predictably to a motive that is over exposed. The music emerges out of extended soliloquy, but then only a few minutes later a second extended soliloquy stops the unfolding. But there are effective moments, and the final section is supercharged and worth the wait.

This is a recording that holds up to repeated listenings. It has a nice recorded presence. The placements and balances were logical. Cheers to pianist Philip Mayers who supports much more than it might appear on first listening. Mayers can make the background sing, then effortlessly glide into the spotlight, disappearing again before you realize how great he sounded. Violinist Kotowa Machida brought the virtuosity of blending into perfect focus.

Willis has harmonized a recording of diverse ensembles, composers and musicians. This is a recording that would be a welcome gift for a good friend.

Monday, August 4, 2014

La bohème by Opera Theater of Connecticut in Clinton

Maksim Ivanov as Marcello, Lisa Williamson as Musetta, 
Shannon Kessler Dooley as Mimi, and Joshua Kohl as Rodolfo
photo by Alan Casavant 

Nothing is more refreshing than snow in August--even when that snow is made by machine during Act III of La bohème. The opportunity to hear this ever-popular Puccini masterpiece given by a trustworthy local opera company is at hand for all within commuting distance of Clinton, Connecticut this week. The opera will be given on Tuesday, August 5, Thursday, August 7 and Saturday, August 9 at 7:30pm and Sunday, August 10 at 6pm at the Andrews Memorial Theater on 54 East Main Street.

I had the opportunity to hear the dress rehearsal on Sunday evening. It was a pleasure to attend this event, where so much came together and where refinements were made on the fly. One cannot review a dress rehearsal because there is still time for changes prior to opening night. But a few words will serve in anticipation.  

General Director Kate Ford, and Opera Theater of Connecticut’s artistic team of Production Director Alan Mann and Music Director Kyle Swann have put together a very effective cast ensemble, and they are on display in an extremely fluid second act. The chorus and children's chorus were both impressive and well-balanced, and the stage action was detailed and entertaining throughout the entire act. 

Lisa Williamson impressed as Musetta. She delivered lines with rhythmically precise diction and created a wide range of expression within the part. Shannon Kessler Dooley as Mimì, and Joshua Kohl as Rodolfo both had big voices that could soar over the orchestra and were at their best when they were able to plant and let their sound resonate. Their duet at the close of Act I was amazing.

The cast also featured Maksìm Ivanov as Marcello, Ryan Burns as Schaunard, and Aaron Sorensen as Colline who sang a darkly warm "Vecchia zimarra." Laurentiu Rotaru was clever and entertaining in both roles he covered: Benoît the landlord and Alcindoro the unfortunate lover of Musetta who gets stuck with the bill for act II.

Conductor Kyle Swann had the orchestra sounding quite good, and this production is sure to please on opening night.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Oboist Albrecht Mayer appears on Prelude & Food

 Sarah Willis, Albrecht Mayer, and Markus Becker playing Herzogenberg

The latest episode of "Prelude & Food" hosted by Sarah Willis has just been released for viewing on the finkernagel & lück medienproduktion website. This episode is centered on oboist Albrecht Mayer who teaches the way toward a delicious looking Lamb ragôut while also giving us fascinating, and at times quite powerful insights, into this musician who contributes so much to the sound of the modern Berliner Philharmoniker. 

The concept of this series is clever. Standard interview contexts often produce standard interview dialog. Cooking with a small group of friends is a chamber music of its own, and Willis can listen, interact, and respond with great spontaneity while never losing focus on the larger progressions.

As you watch this episode (which lasts about an hour) notice how the pacing shifts, and how the feeling of relaxed intimacy develops. Mayer has a complex high-energy personality, and its richness opens throughout the episode.

While the food appeared to be good, the musical selections were particularly tasty. At [40:00] listen for the excerpt from the second movement presto of the Horn Trio in D major, Op. 61 written in 1889 by Heinrich von Herzogenberg. Herzogenberg was connected to Brahms, but was better known as a champion of the music of Bach.

At [52:50] Mayer and Becker play the "Liebesruf eines Faun" for English horn & Piano by Hans Steinmetz (1901-1975). Both musical works appear on Mayer's 2012 Decca CD called "Song of the Reeds."

But the most touching moment is Mayer's confession that he considers himself an "insecure person." If you watch the scene unfold from [42:00] you will discover how the conversation developed. As a child he stuttered [45:37] and found that by channeling his energy through the oboe that he was able to overcome this significant challenge. His ability to communicate, both verbally and musical, is so fluent that one would never imagine that he had these particular challenges. That he felt comfortable enough to share this kind of information reveals inner strength and its own kind of confidence.

Of the four episodes currently available for viewing this one is my favorite. Please share information about this series and let's hope that there are many more episodes to follow!
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