In the middle of Hispanic Heritage Month I have looked and sadly have yet to find the inclusion of one single piece of music by a Latin American composer in the programs of any of our musical institutions.
Here I provide a list of over two dozen composers of either Latin American nationality or heritage. Once read you might like to search You Tube for their music. Surprises await you.
Jules Massenet left us two glorious operas: Manon and Werther, two charming lyric works, Cendrillon and Don Quichotte, and over two dozen other works for the stage seldom heard or seen these days, among those Thaïs, which he titled a comédie lyrique.
In Massenet’s Thaïs the monk Athanaël, attempts to convert the courtesan Thaïs to a life of prayer and penance but discovers too late that his obsession with her is purely erotic. Eventually the courtesan dies while beholding a vision of angels that welcome her to eternal life while the randy monk collapses by her side.
That in roughly sixty words is what Thaïs is all about.
Its 1894 Paris premiere featured some naughty staging for the buxom soprano Sybil Sanderson, who during a suggestive seduction scene had a costume accident that revealed her in her altogether to the baritone playing the saintly monk and to the opening night’s audience.
The pesky censors quickly moved in and spoiled everything by demanding that Massenet excise the salacious scene. What was left until modern productions put the scene back in was a series of tableaux of monks praying, courtesans cavorting, and very little dramatic excitement.
In a recording all we can get is beautiful music while we try not to let our minds wander, and some superb sopranos have recordedThaïs notably among the best looking and sounding Anna Moffo and Renée Fleming, both of whom delivered excellent versions of Ô mon miroir fidèle, rassure-moi?
As for Athanaël, the role has attracted a number of baritones, some better equipped than others when it comes to French style and with the vocal goods to effectively sing Voilà donc la terrible cite. At the top of the list stands the French bass-baritone Gabriel Bacquier, who can be heard to great effect in the old RCA Red Seal LP opposite Beverly Sills.
The famous Meditation and a couple of duets: Baigne d’eau tes mains et tes lèvres and a terrific final one that Massenet has saved for us all along, so as to go out in a blaze of glory make the cost of any recording a much better investment than the purchase of a ticket to a live performance of Massenet’s rarity, where after being preached to far too long by Athanaël and his tiresome fellow monks we are likely to doze off.
In the UNITEL video recording, stage director Peter Konwitschny allows his staging and the set and costumes of his designer to transport the action of the opera to a time and place halfway suspended between a Las Vegas look-like setting and a surrealist incubus, to wit: Athanaël and his fellow monks sport black velour wings sprouting from their backs. Crobyle, Myrtle and the other working girls in the palace of pleasures run by Nicias are dressed in Folies-Bergère feathered numbers. The compliant tenor Roberto Sacca clad in a silver grey and black tux also equipped with matching grey wings runs the joint. The set (whatever there is) is a low-budget arrangement of platforms in a black and white void, where the only expensive items are the lines of coke Thaïs frequently uses. Not even the champagne rises up to the occasion.
If only the singers could save the show! Alas, they can’t! Nicole Chevalier and Josef Wagner cannot begin to meet the demands of the two central roles. She is riddled with an uncontrollable vibrato that at times turns into an acidy wobble, And when she goes for the final top note in Ô mon miroir fidèle, rassure-moi? she misses it, allowing it to turn into a scream. The Athanaël of Josef Wagner does not begin to remotely embrace the elusive French style and diction so essential in this role. His voice, short and tight on top becomes intolerable at extreme dynamics.
After nearly two years in the doldrums live music began to be heard this past summer when the Cincinnati Opera brought three popular stage works to the Queen City in out of doors performances, and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra then ended their Summermusik lineup at the end of August.Now the College Conservatory of Music began its concert series with a symphonic concert on Friday evening.
The Philharmonia Orchestra program began auspiciously with an energetic reading of Jessie Montgomery’s Starburst, an intriguing and brief piece made to give the string section a true workout.
Montgomery’s Starburst was followed by Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, a work composed as a tribute to the University of Breslau, which awarded Brahms an honorary doctorate in philosophy. The familiar work was afforded the orchestra an opportunity to give an elegant performance. Maestro Mark Gibson conducted with fastidious attention to dynamics and instrumental details.
The program continued with Mahler’s first symphony, written when in his twenties and not yet a famous composer but a newcomer to conducting. The often called the Titan bears the musical DNA of its composer in each of its four movements. There is a seldom used underlying program with titles that make the symphony closer to –in Mahler’s words – a tone poem in symphonic form rather than a traditional four-movement symphonic work.
In the opening movement there are sounds that imitate nature, there is the use of a folk-like song melody – “Ging heut’ Morgen über’s Feld“- that Mahler would later use in Songs of a Wayfarer. There are sudden, even abrupt changes of mood, from a tonally ambiguous opening to a lively section, and on to what Mahler then describes in his tempo markings as Langsam, schleppend (Slowly, dragging) and Sehr gemächlich (very restrained), both sections not yet utterly dark, a mood the composer saves for quite later. There are hints of fanfare music coming as if from a distance. A lesser talent would have been accused of throwing in everything but the kitchen sink. I call it unfettered genius.
The linked second and third movements are deceiving as they begin at a happy clip with the French horns intensely at work, following the composer’s indications: Kräftig bewegt, doch nicht zu schnell (moving purposely, though not too fast), and later an unpredictable change comes when a peasant dance in ¾ time breaks in. And then a ditty – Frére Jacques – is heard in a solo string bass riff that is passed back and forth from the bass to the woodwinds presaging melancholy in a minor key.
Stürmisch bewegt – Energisch (Stormy…agitated…energetic) is the mood of the final movement, with occasional tonal ambiguities and thundering outbursts of the percussion
Mahler hinted at some of what he felt as he penned this antithesis to pure music by writing comments he appended to his score: “… from the days of youth… Spring and no end… Human Comedy… Funeral March… from Hell to Paradise… a wounded heart…” All of these are intensely emotional stages that give shape to the capricious musical twists and turns of this great first symphony.
At one point I counted nearly eighty players on stage, whose sound – massive in the many climactic moments of the symphony, especially in the fourth movement, plangent and cantabile at other times – has been honed to perfection by Mark Gibson, who led the young musicians in an impassioned performance that reminded the listeners in Corbett Auditorium of what a treasure this orchestra is.
The Italian word for teacher/mentor/master is maestro, and Mark Gibson is the teacher, mentor, master, heart, and soul of one of the two superb orchestral ensembles of our principal Alma Mater. In a city well known for its many musical gems the Philharmonia Orchestra is a precious commodity under the care of a great maestro.
The orchestral concerts at CCM continue next week when Aik Khai Pung leads the CCM Concert Orchestra in an ambitious program that will feature Schubert’s Fierrabras Overture, Haydn’s Cello Concerto, and Beethoven’s Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, “Eroica.”
Spence Porter, a good friend and lover of music, among many other things artistic, sent me a message asking for my take on Meyerbeer, to which I promised to respond. Here go my random thoughts, with no pretense to offer musicological insights.
Jacob Meyerbeer changed his first name to Giacomo on his first trip to Italy but throughout his life remained a practicing Jew, which, in addition to his becoming hugely successful and wealthy contributed to making several German composers and poets his mortal enemies, among them Richard Wagner, Robert Schumann, and Heinrich Heine.
In spite of the enmity of many anti-Semites, Meyerbeer became the most successful opera composer of the 19th century, especially in Paris, where he created and premiered several of his works, Robert Le Diable, Dinorah, L’Africaine, L’Etoile du Nord, Les Huguenots, Le Prophéte among them.
Meyerbeer’s operas are difficult to sing, calling for protean voices capable of vocal agility, possessing wide ranges, and in many instances endowed with dramatic color and thrust. In his time, Meyerbeer had such stars as Cornélie Falcon, creator of the roles of Alice in Robert Le Diable and Valentine in Les Huguenots whose wide ranging voice, part mezzo-soprano, part dramatic soprano was similar to that of Pauline Viardot, the original Fidés in Le Prophéte.
The casts of Meyerbeer’s operas often called for several star-quality singers. Les Huguenots, for instance requires not one but three top-notch female singers, two baritones, a deep bass, and a heroic tenor.
Well past his lifetime, Meyerbeer’s operas had a spot in the repertory of the major opera houses of Europe and America. At the MET the De Reszke brothers, Victor Maurel, Marcel Journet, Pol Plançon and Enrico Caruso appeared in several of Meyerbeer’s operas. After a period of neglect, Le Prophéte was brought back for Marilyn Horne and James McCracken. Not too long ago the San Francisco Opera revived L’Africaine for a stellar cast that included Plácido Domingo, Shirley Verrett, and Justino Diaz. Joan Sutherland was able to convince a few managements to bring back Les Huguenots for her, but not often enough.
Opera moves at a snail’s pace and repertory changes are as rare as hen’s teeth. Reviving a Meyerbeer opera requires hiring several international stars to commit to learn substantial roles in an opera that they may not get to sing again for a long time, if ever. Then there are the massive difficulties of staging a colossal work, like Les Huguenots with several changes of scenery, a huge chorus, and a running time similar to that of some of Wagner’s lenghthier operas.
So, for now, we have to content ourselves with recordings.
Here’s Marilyn Horne singing the daylights out of Fidés’ big scene from Le Prophéte, part of a SONY recording that can still be found on Amazon: https://youtu.be/XND0xrP68Xw
In the whimsically titled The Knights Before Christmas the resourceful group The Knights gathered together with several collaborators to bring us well before the Christmas musical onslaught a handful of arrangements of folk, pop, and traditional tunes appropriate to the holiday season but immensely enjoyable even if the temperature outside pushes 80 degrees at midday in mi-September.
The joyful musical tidings included in the Bright Shiny Things album range from inventive settings of the familiar Do You Hear What I Hear, O Holy Night, Little Drummer Boy, and Coventry Carol – all four byChristina Courtin- to Spanish language solo turns with Gaby Moreno and Magos Herrera, to instrumental arrangements by Michael P. Atkinson and Colin Jacobsen.
The collaborating soloists include pipa player Wu Man, countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo, and violinist Colin Jacobsen playing fiddle in the rhythmic Haneros Haluli.
The music-making throughout this CD is honest, unmannered, straightforward and disarmingly charming.
REFERENCE RECORDINGS has released a hybrid SACD featuring two recordings by the Pittsburg Symphony Orchestra dating back a couple of years, one of Johannes Brahms Symphony No.4, opus 98 and in the same SACD one of the Larghetto for Orchestra by the Scottish composer James MacMillan. Manfred Honneck conducts and contributes the extensive liner notes. Dirk Sobotka is the producer. Sound/Mirror engineered the album.
After Maestro Honneck’s extensively researched notes accompanying the recording I have little to add in the area of musicological insights. This is the last of Brahms four symphonies – a large work that ranks among his best creations: a fine example of the kind of pure music at which the Austrian master excelled at age 51, when the work premiered, emotionally charged and yet lacking any sort of underlying narrative or program, a mature work by a steadfast classicist, perfectly structured, impeccably orchestrated, melodically inventive, neither breaking any rules nor re-inventing the wheel.
Manfred Honneck elicits a powerful performance from the Pittsburgh ensemble in both works, one balancing attention to dynamic details, attentive to balance, elegant to a fault.
James MacMillan’s Larghetto for Orchestra is one of those contemporary compositions that does not stint on melody – a plaintive, elegiac, cantabile one given mostly to the Pittsburgh superb string section until brass and percussion erupt one third of the way only to retreat and reappear once more. MacMillan’s unabashedly tonal work, unbeknownst to me before this recording, is unquestionably deserving of recognition.
Beethoven composed his Sonata No. 4 when he was 27 years old. One would think that this work, catalogued as Opus 7 would be a less-than-mature effort from a still-young composer. But in point of fact, the Eb major Piano Sonata – Beethoven’s fourth – is as fully-formed a work as his Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor, his last, given the opus number 111 and completed over two decades later in 1822, when the composer was in his early fifties and already in health and appearance an old man.
Dedication of a composition often informs a musical work, and the lengthy opus 7, was one of three works dedicated to the former Countess Anna Louise Barbara Keglevich (the E-flat major piano sonata Op. 7 and an inconsequential set of variations on a theme of Salieri the other two). A piano student of Beethoven’s acquired while he was visiting her family in Bratislava, the young beauty, aged sixteen was already married to Prince Innocenz Odescalchi and highly esteemed as a formidable pianist. Thus the composer could only admire her, dedicate music to her and little else.
The nearly half hour in length Opus 7, given the subtitle of Grand Sonata is a marvelous construct that has little in common with the late Classicism of Haydn, other than its classical four movement structure. Other than that this is a work of genius by a Beethoven ready to be heard in his own terms. The sudden dynamic outbursts, the unpredictable changes of tempi and mood, and the surprising character of its harmonic shifts foretell more novel things to come.
The eleven bagatelles of Opus 119 were composed by Beethoven over a period of thirty years. Light in character and brief in duration they provide, as programmed in this CD a refreshing change of mood – bookended by the intensity of the sonatas that begin and end the recording.
Written between 1821 and 1822, the Piano Sonata No. 32 in C Minor was dedicated to the composer’s patron, Archduke Rudolf. Consisting of only a take it or leave it two movements – a stately opening Maestoso and a second one structured as an elegant air with variations – this monumental work reveals Beethoven at his most iconoclastic: a deaf genius hearing the Sturm und Drang of his soul inside his brain and soul and giving it musical shape in abrupt, even blunt music replete with suddenly tempestuous changes and tempered by small oasis of great delicacy.
Throughout the duration of this unique album made up of archival performances dating back a number of years and just released this February, pianist Antoinette Perry reminds both those familiar with her prodigious gifts and those of us to whom this Navona album introduces her of her preeminence as an important Beethoven specialist – one gifted at the pleasures of nuance, an artist equipped with a solid technique, and one completely willing to subordinate eccentricities of interpretation to Beethoven’s superior musical quirks.
Written fairly late in the composer’s career, with an opus number of 111, the Piano Sonata No. 32 in C minor is the last of Beethoven’s major works for the piano. The German writer Thomas Mann spoke of this work as a “farewell” to the sonata form, that description having to do more with Mann’s subjective perception than fact, since after this, Beethoven had much left to say when it came to works for the keyboard. In reality Beethoven had quite a few inspired creations left, when perhaps wanting to be free of the Classical constraints that his predecessors Haydn and Mozart worked with, he penned eleven Bagatelles and assigned to them the opus number 119.
Contrary to the trifling meaning of the word “bagatelle” the eleven little works in opus 119, some as short as 18 seconds, none longer than three minutes show both substance and humor in addition to sheer inspiration.
In her insightfully written liner notes, Antoinette Perry writes. “Can one ever tire of Beethoven?” Never, not when so sensitively played as in the hands of this fine pianist, say I!
Antoinette Perry’s album Beethoven Bookends (nv6331) for Navona Records, released earlier this year and recorded in 2005, 2008, and 2009 shows the notable American pianist in fine form: elegant in opus 7 , technically faultless at all times, completely at ease in the grandeur of opus 111, playfully delicate in the opus 119 bagatelles, a noble artist to the manner born.
Michael Patterson produced an elegant album that was flawlessly engineered by Arthur Alexander.
COMING UPLive musical performances are starting up again. Some, like those presented by small groups fall under the radar and go by unnoticed. Others are announced on websites that often are overlooked. Here is a list of several concerts I am looking forward to reviewing on my ALL ABOUT THE ARTS blog.
When we get closer to the time, I will be sharing previews of the concerts with details. Here is the first!
Maestro Mark Gibson shared some thoughts on the program: “The Mahler 1 starts what I anticipate will be a Mahler cycle over the next decade. It is my first Mahler 1 at CCM; we have programmed it twice, but always for Concert Orchestra. Like the Brahms, it is celebratory and represents a fresh start for us at the CCM Philharmonia. It also shows our outstanding orchestra to best advantage.”
“For the double bonus, we will repeat the entire program on Monday afternoon, Sept. 20th, in Corbett Auditorium, led by members of my fabulous conducting class. Why go through all the effort to prepare a program like this only to play it once in concert? It also gives me the chance to sit in the house and “qvell,” as we say in Yiddish, over my students, both on the podium and in the orchestra.”
“The programming has changed a little for the first concert. We will open with Starburst, as we did last year during the Great Pandemic, but we will follow up with Academic Festival Overture, which seems only appropriate. It is a joyous celebration of going BACK TO SCHOOL!! YAY!!!!”
If you passed the youthful Maestro Aik Khai Pung in a hallway at the College Conservatory of Music you’d likely take him to be another student on his way to a class or a rehearsal. But…an all-around conductor and educator, Aik Khai Pung is music director of the CCM Concert Orchestra, CCM Chamber Orchestra, Seven Hills Sinfonietta, and Sound of Joy Choir.
Here are his thoughts about his upcoming concert:
“… my initial idea of this “Classic Titan” concert is a strong come back. Concert Orchestra was suspended for 17 months. Fierabras means brave or formidable arm, who is a giant in fiction. Beethoven 3 Eroica is similarly heroic, and I want to dedicate the second movement to remember and honor those who have lost their lives over the pandemic. To pair with Schubert and Beethoven, I chose Haydn Cello concert no 1, who is another titan of classical music.”
Here is the program of the first of several concerts the young maestro will be conducting this season:
Tuesday, September 21 Corbett Auditorium at CCM. 7:30 p.m. CLASSIC TITANS
CCM Concert Orchestra – Aik Khai Pung, music director and conductor
SCHUBERT: Fierrabras Overture, D. 796
HAYDN: Cello Concerto
BEETHOVEN: Beethoven: Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, “Eroica”
Opera aficionados are dependant these days on platforms like Opera Vision to get their frequent doses of operatic fare. So, myself being one of those, I tuned in to the Teatro Real production of Puccini’s Tosca, looking forward to the satisfaction that a fine cast and production would bring. Little did I know that stage director/designer Paco Azorin would have his way with Puccini’s gem and would leave it in lamentable shape, with little or almost no hints of what the composer wanted for his brain child.
To begin with, Puccini was extremely fastidious and ever demanding of what he wanted from any production of any opera of his. In the case of Tosca he famously demanded that a certain set of church bells be brought to the theater where the work premiered so as to authentically replicate their exact sound in Act III. Past such eccentricities, Puccini knew exactly what he wanted from his singing actors and from the set in which they would work.
The Church of Sant’ Andrea della Vale has a certain layout that Puccini examined and he specifically wrote music that would underline the scenic action in that space. In the surrealistic production of the stage director/designer for Madrid’s Teatro Real, the crucially important Atavanti chapel is not there, so that the hapless singer who portrays Angelotti has to endure being covered up in a canvas to avoid being seen by Tosca instead of hiding in the chapel.
A basket that contains the food that is consumed by Angelotti and the elegant fan of the Atavanti Marchioness appear out of nowhere, rather than being discovered by the Sacristan in the chapel where Angelotti hid. The painting that Cavaradossi is working on becomes a sheet fom a sketch pad, so that tenor Joseph Calleja has to sing a routine Recondita Armonia to a piece of paper, and Tosca’s jealousy is reduced to her holding it and badgering her lover with it in hand. When she asks Cavaradossi to change the color of the eyes of the woman depicted in his work the request makes no sense at all, as a pencil sketch has no color.
Most confounding of all, the start of Act I is handled by the director as a dream, in which a naked woman appears to a prone Angelotti. Later on the surrealism continues when Scarpia (baritone Carlos Alvarez) runs against incoming traffic and almost crashes into the Cardinal entering the church to lead the Te Deum. But the prelate is actually Tosca in disguise, which motivates Scarpia, after several collapses to sing “Tosca, mi fai dimenticar’ Iddio!” (“Tosca you have made me forget there is a God!”
Act II began with Scarpia right where we left him at the end of Act I. Brief blackout. When the lights went up again we found ourselves in badly appointed digs in a Palazzo Farnese of the designer’s imagination, complete with – more surrealism – a collection of paintings of large spying eyes for décor and a jail in full view.
I soldiered on, morbidly fascinated by the come-as –you-are costume design of Isidre Prunés: vintage 1800 Empire gowns for Sondra Radvanovsky’s Tosca, contemporary grey business suits for several of the men of the chorus and basic black for the women, high fashion design cut-away coats for Scarpia and his henchmen, and Covid-proof facial masks for the young members of the children’ chorus.
In act II I focused on the great singing of Sondra Radvanovsky and ignored the tentative acting and unrelenting barking of baritone Carlos Alvarez while reminiscing about some of the great Scarpias of the past. I waited for the ending, hoping that no more weird directorial stuff would plague the proceedings. But I was wrong. The naked woman from Act I reappeared to assist Tosca to cover up Scarpia with a similar red cloth to the one used in Act I. Sondra Radvanovsky sang a lovely Vissi d’arte to an equally prone Scarpia, who appeared to have fainted. Moments later she stabbed him and stabbed him and stabbed him in a moment reminiscent of the shower scene in Psycho.
Act III? Similar stuff… The roof of the Palazzo Farnese done in designer metal… Another visit by the naked woman…
Some will accuse me of ingratitude since the Opera Vision presentations are free, and indeed they may be right. I look forward to more free offerings from this indispensable on-line platform, while hoping for better-conceived productions – the kind that honor a composer’s intentions and respect singers so that no idiocies are imposed on them and us as intelligent members of an audience.