A Consummation Devoutly to be Wished.

“Something about this music just seemed to make sense now, when so little else did. Immersing myself in Bach’s pure universe offered a tabula rasa, a chance to musically reset as an unravelling catastrophe, compelling us to slow down and re-evaluate all kinds of basic things in our lives: priorities, careers, relationships, even where and how we live…If Bach served as my first musical mooring in confinement, I returned to Beethoven… Indeed, the directness, virility, determination, and sheer willpower of Beethoven … aligned with my own growing resolve to transcend this trial. As with Bach, Beethoven’s goal-oriented approach and universal vision, devoid of extraneous content, appealed especially at this urgent time.”

Thus writes pianist Andrew von Oeyen about the music of Bach and Beethoven he plays with the directness, virility, determination, and sheer willpower of which he so eloquently speaks in his annotations to his all-Bach and Beethoven album for Warner Classics.

In it he combines precision, technical impeccability, superb musicality and a perfect blend of intellectual acuity and heart, devoting 8 tracks to Bach’s Overture in the French Style, BWV 831, and two more to the Wilhelm Kempff arrangements for piano of the Siciliano from Sonata No. 2 in E-flat for flute and harpsichord, BWV 1031 and the Largo from the Concerto No.5 in F minor for harpsichord, strings and basso continuo, BWV 1056.

The remaining seven tracks – gloriously executed – are taken up by Beethoven’s Sonata No. 13 “Quasi Una Fantasia”, Op. 27, No. 1, and the Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57, “Appassionata”. This is a remarkable collection featuring a superb artist at the peak of his powers and only in need of the kind of music making for which we all long: a live performance in front of a live audience: a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Rafael de Acha             All About the Arts

Last Tango Before Sunrise

Peer Music is releasing Last Tango Before Sunrise: The Music of José Serebrier.

With the composer himself conducting the Málaga Philharmonic Orchestra and surrounded by a group of peerless soloists, among them flautists Nestor Torres and Gabriel Goñí-Dondi, harpist Sara Cutler, pianist Nadia Shpachenko, soprano Solène Le Van, and the members of Moscow’s Gnessin Percussion Ensemble led by Ilia Melikhov, the album features an interesting sampling of Serebrier’s journey as a composer, leading from the dissonances of the 1957 Piano Sonata and the explorations of the conflation of sound and colors in the 1971 Colores Mágicos.

In certain early compositions featured in the album Serebrier taps into his Latin American roots, seeking to return to the richness of the music of his native Uruguay. That search for the simple and authentic is evident in the highly rhythmic Candombe and Conga and is most successful in the ravishingly melodic Danza, in the sultry Tango in Blue, in the intriguing Almost a Tango and in the inspired work that gives the album its title: Last Tango Before Sunrise.

Throughout the multiple compositions featured in this fascinating album the composer gives his soloists ample opportunities to excel in music idiomatically suited to the various instruments for which he writes.

The album is nicely produced and recorded in various venues and abundantly annotated with commentary by the composer himself.

Rafael de Acha       All About the Arts

AN ALLOWANCE FOR PETER GELB

When I was a seven year old kid and able to ride a public bus to school on my own, I was given an allowance of 25 cents every day. That quarter allowed me to either choose to walk approximately a mile each way or ride a public bus for 8 cents each way, so that, if I chose to walk, I had a whole 25 cents, if I took the bus both ways I still had 9 cents left for a mid-afternoon snack to be enjoyed after school. Bear in mind this was in 1950’s Cuba.

Later, in my early teens and on weekends my allowance would go up to one peso that my father gave me on Saturday mornings. I could go to the movies for 50 cents and have four centavos left over after one ten centavos pop corn, one ten centavos Milky Way, two 5 centavos cokes, and sixteen centavos for the round trip bus fare.

Even later, when I developed a taste for the artsy and off-beat, I could take in a play in one of Havana’s several pocket-theatres or a concert in the Auditorium’s second balcony with the one peso that continued to be my unchanging allowance. By then I had opened a savings account that grew every time I had a birthday, at which time I would get gifts ranging from five to twenty-five pesos from my mother, my father, my godmother, my godfather, and several of my aunts and uncles on both sides.

I couldn’t bring more than $5 with me when I left Cuba. Once settled in my new homeland, I got my first job as a janitor on a night-shift, and continued to hone my cash management skills on a $20-a-week salary while attending school with a mix of student loans and partial scholarships making it all possible.

Several years later those student loans had to be paid off and lucky me I got a teaching job right out of school that allowed me and my wife to avoid being sent to debtor’s jail.

May years later, in the late 1980’s, when my wife and I co-founded a theater, I had to further refine my budgeting skills, while doing the perilous balancing act familiar to so many of my colleagues in arts management, so as to survive one more year, one more NEA budget cut, one more play tanking after another selling out.

All of the above brings me round to the subject of The Metropolitan Opera’s Finances and Artistic Planning, and the pressing question of who has been minding the store at the MET?

The annual costs of mounting and running an opera season are staggering and those costs are never off-set by ticket sales. They have never been, since the San Cassiano Opera House opened in Venice in 1637, nor will they ever be. Contributed income has to make up the difference, and donations are subject to the vagaries of the economy and the folks with the deep pockets: up one year, down the next.

The MET management is now under scrutiny and will hopefully learn to watch its dollars and cents. No more Ring disasters, please! Hold on to the old productions a little longer or come up with new production concepts that do not call for cumbersome, noisy, twenty-million-dollar machines that frequently end up malfunctioning in the middle of the performance

Has anybody thought of asking Peter Gelb to voluntarily cut back his salary? Is anybody in the department that oversees the costs of physical production authoritative enough to either green-light or nix the mindless spending that goes on with some of the productions the Met has been trotting out? Will there be yet another Prince Igor with a field of hand-made satin poppies costing thousands of dollars?

Memory can be faulty, but whatever of it I have left has a special place for the glory days of the MET during the years when the late John Dexter was one sharp prong of the Bliss-Levine-Dexter triumvirate that brought to the company’s Lincoln Center stage some of the most memorable productions ever.

There was the Dexter/Svoboda Les vêpres siciliennes, the Marilyn Horne/James McCracken Le prophète, Britten’s Billy Budd with Peter Pears. And there was, week after week great conductors at the podium, great art on stage, and common sense buttressed by solid management behind the scenes.

The Met has gone placid and flaccid with an artistic planning department that often causes one to say out loud: “What were they thinking?” Production values have plummeted, often ranging from questionable to wrong-headed to just plain tacky.

There’s the recent Eugene Onegin with its plethora of columns in the middle of a ballroom. There’s the updated Don Pasquale set in Naples. There’s the weird Traviata, with the gigantic clock and the all-male-looking chorus with the sopranos and altos in tuxes. There was the mercifully-replaced Tosca, chock-full of sexually-explicit scenes that sent patrons fuming up the aisles and out the lobby doors of the MET. All of these wrong-headed exercises in futility replaced older but better and beloved productions.

The setting of a Rigoletto in the Vegas of the rat-pack 1960’s or Falstaff set in 1950’s England or Manon Lescaut plopped down in Nazi-occupied France brings these classics no closer to the sensibilities of a contemporary and younger audience than productions done in the period and place meant by the librettist and the composer. The MET continues to disappoint its aging audience with its concept productions while it fails to capture any of the potential new audience that opera needs in order to survive in the 21st century.

When Stanislavsky and Gordon Craig and Meyerhold and Vahtangov and Jacques Copeau and all the other great pioneers of 20th century theatre did their revolutionary work, they came at it equipped with formidable knowledge of dramatic literature and the visual arts. They were, each and every one of them, great artists and insightful intellectuals, both director-designers and dramaturges, whether working side by side with living playwrights or on their own, with the spirits of Shakespeare and Lope and Sophocles and Moliere hovering about.

Those modern theatre pioneers directed theatre, opera and operetta with the same curatorial fastidiousness that is sorely lacking in the work of many of today’s directors, whose productions more often than not suffer from directorial laziness and dramaturgical cluelessness.

Many of the productions the Metropolitan Opera has been trotting out in recent years fail to tap into textual clues provided by the libretto and dramatic clues provided by the composer. I have yet to see a new production at the Peter Gelb MET that can remotely compare to the finest work of Patrice Chéreau, Franco Zeffirelli, Giorgio Strehler, Ingmar Bergman or Lucchino Visconti. Where are all the world class regisseurs today?

An injection of fresh creativity informed by solid taste and sound management skills is desperately needed for the MET to survive and thrive. Nobody wants to confront the doomsday possibility of the Metropolitan Opera imploding artistically and financially and ceasing operations.

 Rafael de Acha       All About the Arts

FASCINATING RUSSIAN MUSIC

The Symphony No. 2 by the much neglected Russian composer Mili Balakirev is but one of the rare treasures in the ALTO release ALC1429 of the music of the least prolific yet most influential of the Russian Romantics who integrated and led the group that came to be known as the Mighty Five.

The late Evgeny Svetlanov conducts the USSR Symphony Orchestra with utmost flair and an intense feel for Balakirev’s quintessentially Russian music, which his forces replicate with brilliant playing.

The Symphony’s Second movement, titled Scherzo alla Cosacca by its composer and the tempo di Polacca finale leave no doubt as to where Balakirev found the inspiration for his splendidly orchestrated, unabashedly melodic, folk-inspired compositions.        

The nicely engineered compact disc includes the Overture on Three Russian Songs, a Suite in D Minor on Pieces by Chopin, and the tone poem In Bohemia.

In the Russian label Northern Flowers’s release Nostalgic Russia for Violin & Piano Japanese violinist Hideko Udagawa amply demonstrates her affinity for the music of Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rachmaninoff, Arensky and other Russian Romantics.

Her program ranges from the familiar Fritz Kreisler’s transcription of the Hymn to the Sun from Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera The Golden Cockerel and Tchaikovsky’s Valse sentimentale to off-the-beaten-path selections by Kabalevsky, Arensky, and other post-Romantic 20th century composers.

Encompassing Scriabin’s haunting Nocturne Op.5 No.1 and a superb reading of five pieces from Shostakovich’s Preludes for piano Op.34 transcribed for her instrument by the artist, Udegawa’s recital satisfies with the artist’s elegant musicality and inventive programming.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax play with hope amid tears

Sony Classical is releasing Hope Amid Tearsa recording of Beethoven’s complete works for cello and piano. In the album Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax play all five of Beethoven’s  sonatas for cello and piano in addition to three sets of variations for cello and piano.

In 1809 Beethoven sent a copy of a recently-completed sonata to his friend Ignaz von Gleichenstein with the note in Latin “Inter lacrimas et luctum” (“Amid tears and grief”), an oblique commentary on the state of Vienna in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, a time that coincided with Beethoven’s despondency over his worsening deafness and his despair over his personal life.

Emanuel Ax writes:  “His mastery of musical craft was second to none, of course, but it is his indomitable spirit in the face of personal tragedy that makes him unique. In this period of world-wide unease, grief, and suffering, it is perhaps fitting that we are also celebrating the 250th birthday of the composer who represents what is best in our humanity.”

The album includes the Sonata No.1 in F Major, Op. 5 No. 1; the Sonata No.2 in G minor, Op. 5 No. 2; the Sonata No.3 in A Major, Op. 69; the Sonata No.4 in C Major, Op. 102 No.1; the Sonata No.5 in D Major, Op. 102 No. 2; the 7 Variations on “Bei Mannern, welche Liebe fuhlen”; the 12 Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus;  and the 12 Variations in F major on “Ein Madchen oder Weibchen.”

It is well known how Beethoven can traverse changing moods that fluctuate from the meditative to the melancholy to the joyful to the contemplative to the achingly sad to music in which sudden gleams of hope are tinged with joy.

Even more remarkable it is to hear two towering artists capable to penetrate the depths of this music and then share it with the listener without a hint of grandstanding or egotism. Yo-Yo Ma and Emanuel Ax give us in this remarkable recording a heartfelt and insightful interpretation of several works by Beethoven at a time when music this noble is very much needed.

Rafael de Acha        ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

A PERFECT CARMEN

It often happens to me when reviewing a newly-released operatic DVD of a familiar opera that I find myself skipping from set number to set number. I do this to fight off annoyance with the mindless capriciousness of stage directors as they inflict damage on the great works of the standard repertoire.

That was not the case as I sat and watched with delight all four acts of Bizet’s Carmen in a recent Naxos release of a superb 2009 Opera Comique production staged by the English director Adrian Noble and led by his compatriot, Sir John Elliot Gardiner helming the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique and the Monteverdi Choir.

At the front and center of this fine staging is the estimable soprano Anna Caterina Antonacci, not quite fifty back then and still at the peak of her powers. The Italian singer delivers here a ferocious performance, exquisitely sung and full of volatility, mystery, and seductiveness.

The cast, ranging from the achingly vulnerable Micaela of Anne Catherine Gillet to the vocally and dramatically first-rate Don José of Andrew Richards, to the elegant Escamillo of Nicolas Cavallier is impeccable. A terrific ensemble of Opera Comique regulars – Virginie Fachon, Annie Gill, Francis Dudziak, and Vincent Ordonneau as the smugglers – and Riccardo Novaro as Morales and Matthew Brook as Zuniga, are note-perfect.

What is most remarkable about the entire ensemble, from the leads to the singers in the supporting roles is the total commitment to the assignment: the handling of the spoken dialogue, the detailed acting, and, above all, a respect for the dynamic markings specified by Bizet.

In the Micaela- Don José and later in the Flower Song, Andrew Richards scales down his sizeable voice to great effect, spinning out a ravishing voix mixte that serves the music, as the singer sets aside any vocal grandstanding. At other times Anna Caterina Antonacci avoids any cheap effects and gratuitous optional notes, singing exactly what Bizet prescribed.

The Monteverdi Choir looks like real denizens of Seville, dressed in authentic garb designed by set and costume designer Mark Thompson, and singing gloriously. Sir John Elliot Gardiner obtains stupendous playing from the Orchestre Revolutionnaire et Romantique all the while being the ideal singers’ conductor.

The Opera Comique holds under nine hundred patrons, a perfect-size house for the many middle-weight lyric voices that make life-long careers in that theatre, an ideal venue for Bizet’s Carmen.

Rafael de Acha                  All About the Arts

Lisette Oropesa sings Mozart

In her solo debut album for Pentatone, Ombra Compagna, Lisette Oropesa sings ten arias, some written by Mozart for inclusion in operas by fellow composers in need of musical assistance. Others were conceived by the composer as stand-alone concert arias, rather than operatic pieces. In almost every instance these arias provided the singers for whom they were written with vocal challenges that allowed them to display their technical equipment. The music demands agility, perfectly executed trills, a secure top range, the necessary breath control to spin long phrases, and the evenness in registers to execute enormous leaps from above the staff to the lowest register of the soprano voice.

Who were these singers? They were working professionals like Aloysia Weber, and Louisa Viileneuve, some were gifted amateurs like Countess Maria Josepha von Paumgarten. Some starred in operas by Mozart and by lesser luminaries like Sarti, Jommelli, Martín y Soler, and Anfossi. Others, like Josepha Duschek, were concert singers who rarely appeared on stage. All of them undoubtedly possessed formidable techniques.

The texts of these arias were provided by some of the finest lyric poets of their time, including Pietro Metastasio, Carlo Goldoni, and Lorenzo Da Ponte, and they range from the tragic and heroic Ah! Lo previdi, to the lighthearted Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio!; Chi sà, chi sà, qual sia, and Voi avete un cor fedele.

Throughout the ten selections in the album, the gifted soprano Lisette Oropesa dazzles with her secure negotiation of the many technical hurdles facing the singer who takes on this repertory. Her bright and often plangent vocal timbre coupled to a crystal-clear understanding of the words’ emotional import makes for a most pleasurable hour of listening.

The singer is superbly accompanied by Il pomo d’oro led by Antonello Manacorda.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Atmospheric Music from Spain

Spanish Jews have called their former homeland in the Iberian peninsula Sepharad and themselves Sephardim, and Joaquin Rodrigo chose to name one of his compositions Dos pequeñas fantasias (Two Little Fantasies) finding inspiration in Sephardic music.

¡Qué buen caminito! (What a nice little road) and Ecos de Sefarad (Echoes of Sepharad) evidence much of what is multi-cultural and what enriches Spanish music.

Elsewhere in the delightful Naxos album Joaquín Rodrigo Guitar Music, Vol. 3 (8.574004) the listener is treated to the quintessential Rodrigo sound in Elogio de la guitarra, Tríptico, Dos preludios, Sonata a la española, and El álbum de Cecilia

Elegantly lyrical, hauntingly evocative, Romantic to its core, Rodrigo’s music is redolent of an intensely atmospheric Spain, and is here nobly played with intense musicality by the gifted Turkish-American guitarist Celil Refik Kaya.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

Remembering Italo Tajo (April 25, 1915-March 28, 1993)

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In the fall of l966, I was back for my second year at Juilliard.  One Saturday, as I was leaving the New York Public Library at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street, I approached the entrance to the Seventh Ave. IRT, and stopped at a newsstand.  My eyes fixed on a small English magazine, Opera.   Hoping to buy it, I reached in my pocket to be sure I had a subway token.  No such luck.  I didn’t have enough money for it and the subway, so I picked it up for a quick look.  In a section called something like “Who, What, When and Where” the name of Italo Tajo jumped off the page.

I then read a notice announcing that Italo Tajo, a singer I greatly admired, had been appointed to head the Opera Department at the University of Cincinnati’s College-Conservatory of Music.   I dug into my pocket and pulled out the one dollar I had, bought the magazine and headed uptown on foot.  At age 23, I was not fazed by the prospect of walking the 80 + uptown blocks to Claremont Avenue, near Broadway and 122nd Street, where I lived at International House, across from the Juilliard School’s old location.

The brisk autumn air and the walk gave me clarity and time to thinkIn spite of the training I was receiving, and the gratitude I felt for being in such a prestigious school, I had often found myself fighting depression and loneliness.  New York was cold and grey and I felt isolated.   By the time I finished dinner and got to bed that night I had resolved to somehow get to Cincinnati to study with Italo Tajo.

Early the following Monday I telephoned the College-Conservatory of Music and the operator connected me to the desk of Martha Moore.  In her charming Southern accent, she informed me that the school would be holding its annual New York auditions the following week, and asked if I would like to have an audition appointment. 

“I would like that very much,” I replied.

The following week I went to the Baldwin Piano Studios in New York and sang for two people:  Dean Jack Watson and the vocal coach Robert K. Evans, who accompanied me as I sang the same two arias which had been my lucky ticket to Juilliard two years before. After I sang I was interviewed by Dean Watson.  He first asked why in the world I would want to leave Juilliard where I had a “full-ride” scholarship, half-way through my second year.  My answer was straightforward.  I wanted to study with Italo Tajo.   I thanked him and Mr. Evans for their time, and left. 

The acceptance letter came a week later.  I would be the recipient of a full-tuition scholarship and a living stipend, for room and board. 

The Italian opera star turned Maestro was in his mid-fifties when I met him. Maestro Tajo had had an international career, singing leading and supporting bass roles in every major opera house in Europe and in the United States.  He had made his debut at age 20, singing of all things, Fasolt in Wagner’s Das Rheingold—years before most basses appear in a leading role.  At the time when most male singers would have been in their prime, he had already lived through a 35 year career of constant singing on large stages, and the fast pace had taken a toll on his vocal health.

When I met him for the first time, I was taken aback by his physical appearance.  In photographs, the Maestro had the dashing looks of a movie star, but he was now suffering from severe gout, looked thin and appeared much older than 53. He walked aided by a cane. But what I saw that day did in no way dampen my enthusiasm or admiration. If anything, it increased my respect for an artist who was still forging ahead and had a lifetime of experience to share.  We spoke in Italian, and, within days I became Tajo’s translator-interpreter-assistant and, after meeting his wife, Inelda, I was welcomed as a member of their extended family of students.

Cincinnati agreed with the Maestro, and by the end of that first year, he was standing upright, surrounded by his admiring students, looking vibrant and years younger.  And, it wasn’t long before James Levine, another Cincinnatian, spotted him and lured him back to the Metropolitan Opera, where Tajo enjoyed a new version of his career, singing character roles to the delight of MET audiences.  He continued to do that for several years, but he never lost his love for teaching and directing at CCM.

Italo Tajo’s career was interesting and diversified. While he did take on some of the “big” bass parts – Mephistopheles, King Phillip, Attila – he was at his best in comic roles to which he could bring his acting skills: Mozart’s Figaro and Leporello, Donizetti’s Dulcamara and Don Pasquale, and Rossini’s Don Basilio. And he knew when to say no to a part for which he felt unsuited. He once shared with me how on a cruise ship on a transatlantic crossing Toscanini asked him to sing the title role of Verdi’s Falstaff. Tajo thanked the conductor saying he could not accept his kind offer, as the baritone role lay too high for him.

Italo Tajo was a great singing actor for whom mere good vocalism could never be a substitute for the sum total of the singing actor’s skills. For his artistry and for his generous and nurturing mentorship he lives in the collective memory of many of us who were so fortunate to get to work with him.

Here are several You Tube links of Tajo’s singing. Enjoy.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

Leif Ove Andsnes plays Mozart

In the all-Mozart Sony Classical CD Mozart Momentum 1785, the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes plays three of Mozart’s Piano Concertos, in addition to the Fantasia in C Minor, and the Masonic Funeral Music, K. 477. He has as his collaborators the 45-member Mahler Chamber Orchestra.

The album is a celebration of the years 1785 and 1786, a time when Mozart wrote some of his greatest music for the piano, including three of his greatest piano concertos, reinventing as he went along the very rules of composition for keyboard and orchestra, which later became a foundation for the works for piano by Beethoven.

This album is an essential addition to the libraries of Mozart devotees.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts