Friday, August 26, 2011

Mahler Symphony No. 7 heard as "Song of the Ominous." A New Season in the Digital Concert Hall

The Berlin Philharmonic opened a much anticipated new season in the Digital Concert Hall with an impressive and spirited live performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 7, and hearing a live transmission of this event in the path of a hurricane changes the way one hears the music.

There is controversy as to how to hear the finale of this symphony, and in the program notes attached to the concert website Harald Hodeige summarized the history of a seemingly simple question: is the finale joyous music, or is it a parody of joy?

Like anyone else on the East Coast of the USA, I heard this concert in the path of hurricane Irene. Today it is sunny but tomorrow...We are all feeling rushed and distracted. We feel like the finale of Mahler 7.

The restlessness in this music has never been so apparent to me. Today it sounded like a series of grand celebrations all compressed and rushed with one eye on the window looking south. Maybe the joy/parody model is the wrong framework with which to approach this finale. Maybe instead, like so much of this symphony, it speaks with suppressed anxiety...a sense of the ominous just around the corner.

In this performance, led by Simon Rattle, the finale seemed cut from the same cloth as the four movements that preceded it, and the flow of events seemed not to stop between movements but to continue unabated from where they had left off.

Rattle also shaped the flow of energy within movements with great care. In the development of the first movement, often the place of greatest ferocity in a symphony, Mahler instead scored a dreamscape of colorful sound, framed by marches. Rattle led a series of panoramic textures into a climatic and rich presentation of simultaneous ideas...then sudden silence. Silence in the Berlin Philharmonic can have the edges of an articulated sound.

This opening movement is centered in brass, and the rich sectional horn sound was fabulous throughout but particularly during the recapitulation, and the entire brass section drew the coda to a memorable closing.

...And then it was night.

The three central movements of this symphony group together to explore sounds of the night: two Nachtmusik movement built around a central scherzo marked "Schattenhaft (shadowy)."

The section cellos produced an expressive sound during the first Nachtmusik when that Schubertian dance music broke forth in A-flat major, and the midnight tango, first articulated by oboes, and later cellos in thirds was magical. The syncopations and broken grinding of the scherzo were given with a sense of distortion and humor. Rattle took a quick tempo during the second Nachtmusik which made it seem a culmination of the set of three dark moods.

Mahler's seventh symphony has sometimes been called "The Song of the Night." Heard as such the finale stands apart as contradiction or parody. Is the seventh instead a Song of the Ominous?

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Opera Theater of Connecticut Presents a Classic Barber

Laurentiu Rotaru (Dr. Bartolo) and Meredith Ziegler (Rosina) star
in Opera Theater of Connecticut’s performances of The Barber of Seville.

Photo by Alan Casavant.

Opera Theater of Connecticut, now in its 26th year, opened a run of four performances of The Barber of Seville in Andrews Memorial Theater on Main Street in Clinton Connecticut. General Director Kate Ford and Artistic Director Alan Mann presented a charming and very classical version of Rossini's influential masterpiece.

The opera was performed in English. English is much harder to sing than Italian because the vowels are seldom pure. Also, most singers have learned the Italian libretto, and nothing is harder than learning a new set of words to a song you already know.

Mann explained during his pre-event "Opera Talk" that until the mid 20th century that it was always standard practice to perform operatic comedies in the native language of the country in which it was performed, and he reminded us that even into the 20th century that the language opera was performed in was a complicated blend of traditions often independent of the language in which the opera was originally written.

Hearing The Barber of Seville in English allows one to immediately hear the influence this opera had on the operetta style, and Mann underlined this connection by incorporating complicated hand gestures, especially at the close of the first act.

Mann also projected supertitles. This allowed us to instantly frame long sentences and anticipate the precision with which the cast was able to articulate the text. It also allowed the wit, often created by the incredible speed of unfolding, to be very accessible to an American audience.

An emphasis on clarity of presentation extended into all details of this performance, which was remarkably free from the antics and shtick that are often find their way into performances of The Barber. This opera has a razor-sharp score and the personality of its characters is strong. This production allowed us an opportunity to hang out with these characters and get to understand them through the music itself, without distractions.

This cast was highly proficient. Tenor Matt Morgan was a colorful Count Almaviva, David Pershall was a crowd favorite as Figaro, and bass-baritone Laurentiu Rotaru brought many shades to the character of Dr. Bartolo.

But the star of the production was Meredith Ziegler as Rosina. The role of Rosina was intended to be performed by a mezzo, and the rich, warmness of sound that Ziegler produced was so much preferable to the sound of coloratura sopranos, who are often cast as Rosina.

Ziegler has golden instincts for comedy. She has a huge repertory of gestures and expressions and had the ability to direct attention within the ensemble in highly effective ways. Ziegler is the Lucille Ball of comic opera.

She sang "Contro un cor che accende amore," the act two "lesson aria" in Italian, and there was no substitute aria inserted into the lesson scene. This was a classic production in every detail.

The production was well received in Clinton and, as always with the Opera Theater of Connecticut, the place was packed. It was no simple matter to get to the Andrews Memorial Theater, because there was a torrential downpour of rain during the time most folks arrived. The railroad underpasses were closed because of flooding, and the event started about fifteen minutes late in order to accommodate delayed transportation. No problem. Mann kept us company, and the event was worth the wait.

Opera Theater of Connecticut will present The Barber of Seville in Andrews Memorial Hall in Clinton on Thursday, August 11 and Saturday, August 13 at 7:30 and Sunday, August 14 at 6:00. For additional information call 860-669-8999 or follow this link.

Monday, August 8, 2011

Die Liebe der Danae at Bard; A Choice Choosing

Two men vie for one woman. Which did she choose?

If her choice was between words or music, the poet or composer, then you heard Capriccio by Richard Strauss. But if the choice is wealth and immortality, or love and mortality then it was Die Liebe der Danae, another late opera by Strauss, and like me, you heard it at Bard.

This opera is rarely performed. It is expensive. Choosing Die Liebe means choosing ten top-shelf singers, eight of whom have parts that require extremes range, power and endurance that few can handle. The conductor must choose between complex balances and focus elusive tonal goals that can quickly wander without constant attention. The production must choose how to handle an opera set as a mythological topic that can seem remote and detached.

But this performance, part of the 2011 Summerscape season presented in the Fischer Center for the Performing Arts at Bard, showed how creative collaboration is always the best of choices.

Kevin Newbury directed a modern urban setting of the myth. He used billboards atop dimensional images of skyscrapers to celebrate Danae's engagement to a man with the golden touch that she thought was Midas, but who was actually Jupiter in disguise. The images of Danae were shot with the glamour of perfume ads for a company called Au (the chemical symbol for gold). In the third act, the real Midas and Danae appeared in an old 1970s hatchback with working headlights. The car was an effective symbol of the new life that they had chosen, a life built from an escape without money or glamor, guided for the first time by their own sense of values.

Newbury's setting successfully translated the myth into modern speak.

The cast was young, and the performance felt young all the right ways. While these young voices were not always able to reach every extreme in the score, they gave vibrant musical and dramatic portrayals and communicated the sense and relevance of each character with a sense of joy that is often tempered in veteran singers.

Meagan Miller developed a dimensional Danae. She was fluent enough to be credible among the rich and downhome enough to make the third scene seem very touching. Miller's voice was lasereque. What a great musician. She can manage any texture and can be understood across a wide spectrum of emotions.

Carsten Wittmoser was nothing short of amazing in the impossible role of Jupiter. No one can sing Jupiter. Not even Jupiter. Wittmoser has charm and was completely believable in the role. He gave the role a relaxed intensity that caught surprising shades in every register. Soon he will be able to handle everything in this role. Then stay out of his way.

Roger Honeywell has a colorful tenor voice, and he interacted with Miller with effective charisma. The richness of his singing made Danae's initial interest in him seem to flow from within the music itself.

Sarah Jane McMahon made Xanthe into a memorable character. McMahon balanced on the very edge between making Xanthe a mirror image of Danae and leading an independent but shared realization of their potential futures. McMahon's scorching high D-flat, echoed moments later by Danae culminated the second scene of act one.

The four goddesses, Aurora Sein Perry as Semele, Camille Zamora as Europa, Jamie Van Eyck as Alcmene, and Rebecca Ringle as Leda, balanced better as a quartet than any available recording. Their parts are harder than you would ever imagine, and few singers will take them one for fear of not being able to break out of the unified female quartet sound which is so characteristic of this opera. Each of these goddesses was able to transmit a distinctive personality, at just the right times, before rejoining the quartet sound.

Conductor Leon Botstein brought the musical development into the narrative by bringing clarity to the unfolding motives as they combine to form altered meanings. He shaped the music to allow play between wit and unfulfillable longing. This particular blend is the very essence of late Strauss.

Botstein's lengthy essay contained in the program booklet should be a model for how to engage a new classical music audience. It was filled with insightful observations, comparisons with other operatic repertoire, and new ways of thinking about the way Liebe der Danae unfolds. Musicians are famous for not wanting to communicate. Botstein does. Think of it as choosing a collaboration with an audience that is respected.

Saturday, August 6, 2011

Opening Night at Chestnut Hill Concerts in Old Saybrook

Question. If you want to create a standard program of classical chamber music centered on a piano quartet, and you also want each member of the quartet to play exactly twice on the program, what are the possible ensembles? Assuming you choose not to feature works for solo strings, the first half would most likely consist of a sonata for violin, viola, or cello, with the other two instruments paired in a string duo.

Chestnut Hill Concerts opened its 42nd season, in the Katharine Hepburn Cultural Arts Center in Old Saybrook, with an enjoyable evening of music centered on the Dvoràk Piano Quartet in E-flat major, Op. 87, that was preceded by the Beethoven Sonata for Violin and Piano in C Minor, Op. 32, No. 2, and the Duo for Viola and Cello by Walter Piston.

Violist Jonathan Vinocour and cellist Raman Ramakrishnan opened the event with the Piston Duo. Written in 1949, this infrequently played work was a refreshing start for a summer evening concert. The breathless first movement was performed with edgy rhythms and carefully controlled balance between the instruments. Both players had much more room on the quiet side of the dynamic spectrum that could have been explored to better shape the second movement, which seemed long, but the finale was given with stunning precision at a faster tempo than often played.

The remaining pair of musicians, violinist Harumi Rhodes and pianist Steven Beck, played the Beethoven C minor violin sonata to close the first half of the program. Rhodes was even able to energize the rests in the famous opening motive of this sonata, and she and Beck strove for an articulate opening movement. This is music that lives in its own compression, and it needs to be handled with skill or the music splinters. The sum of details in this performance allowed it to rage at all the right times.

Beck is a pianist who plays chamber music with the innate refinement of a string player. He specializes in clarity. I am now a Beck fan.

The finale of the C minor violin sonata was Beethoven's great essay on the augmented sixth sonority. Rhodes and Beck took the movement quickly and both smiled at the deflections and detours that Beethoven found. We smiled too.

After intermission the quartet took on the Dvoràk E-flat major piano quartet, a piece which seemed to capture the feel of the season; perfect for a summer evening in Old Saybrook.

Rhodes has a commanding musical presence and can communicate with a variety of subtle gestures that are better than those of many conductors. She kept the ensemble sharply focused and led them through the rich textures that characterize this work.

Joyful music is more challenging than one might imagine; it depends on timing much the same way that comedy does. But joy came across not only from within the music, but it also radiated from the care with which it was delivered. I have never learned so much from any single performance of this piece. Applause began to break out even before the final cadence was finished, and faithful in Old Saybrook gave the quartet a much deserved standing ovation.

The Chestnut Hill Concert Series continues at the "Kate" in Old Saybrook with performances on August 12, 19, and 26. For additional information, call (203) 245-4736 or visit this link.
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