January 16 came and went, and my mind, frankly, was on everything having to do with what’s going on in our country. Today, January 25, I found by chance a Facebook posting of mine from two years ago honoring the birthday of Marilyn Horne, which happened to pass unnoticed by me this year.

Let me take a couple of minutes of our time and tell you why this homage.

I was 19, recently arrived in Los Angeles and already starting to think that I had a bass-baritone voice that could be trained for Opera. As it turns out that is not what I ended up doing, although I continue to worship at that shrine. Anyway, I was coaching my first operatic role ever – Don Alfonso in Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte. My coach was the immense in girth and even larger in genius Ernest St. John Metz – Jack to all his students.

One day I was just finishing a coaching when the door connecting Jack’s studio to the kitchen swung open and in came a lady that Jack called Jackie. She was carrying a tray of sandwiches and casually asked for me to stay and have lunch and listen to her coaching. I wish I remembered what she was preparing that day. She had recently returned from several years in Germany, singing the bread and butter soprano repertory.

Oh, that voice!

She was then, at age 28 or thereabouts changing “Fach” (what they call in Germany what we call “rep”) and was about to make a major debut with the San Francisco Opera as Marie in Wozzeck, opposite Geraint Evans. I saw that and was blown away by the whole experience, including Marilyn Horne’s uncanny ability to make Alban Berg’s jagged, tortured vocal line sound as beautiful as Bellini.

Shortly thereafter came regular appearances on TV talk shows, her Arsace in Semiramide, opposite Joan Sutherland, some years later her Carmen at the MET, and that extraordinary career became the stuff of legend.

I never again saw her socially, but heard her in performance again and again. She got better – if that is humanly possible – with each year.

After her retirement, Marilyn Horne started to teach master classes around the country and one day came to the University of Miami, where my wife, Kimberly Daniel taught Voice. I was out of town and could not come to the Master Class, but Kimberly somehow became Ms. Horne’s assigned faculty escort. She casually mentioned that her husband had coached with Jack Metz when he lived in Los Angeles. Kimberly still remembers how Marilyn Horne hugged her and would not let go of her hand all day long.

Interesting how someone like Marilyn Horne can impact lives. One of my friends, tenor Allan Palacios Chan has been coaching with Ms. Horne at the Music Academy of the West. The changes she has wrought in my young friend’s singing are nothing short of miraculous. I wish our CCM could steal the thunder of the other colleges that are having Marilyn Horne come in to teach master classes and bring her to Cincinnati.

But, in the meantime, here’s my belated Happy Birthday homage to Jackie Horne.








960x410_abc7548076019252a17d5050a607daa7The MET HD presentation of Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette has been given a terrific looking production by Bartlet Sher. The sets by Michael Yergan and the 18th century costumes by Catherine Zuber create an elegant and enlightened Verona.

Yergan’s set transforms from ballroom to balcony to Friar Laurent’s cell to nuptial chamber to tomb with minimal technical fuss. In a stunningly theatrical moment a huge billowing white cloth flies down to the stage cleansing the bloodbath of Verona’s public square and transporting the action to the nuptial chamber of the ill-starred lovers.

The Romeo and Juliette in this production are both very fine singers. As a welcome bonus, both Diana Damrau and Vittorio Grigolo are as good looking a pair as this reviewer has ever seen. Shakespeare indicates in the words of Juliette’s Nurse that she is fourteen. Romeo is not much ahead of her in years. Now try casting that in Opera.

Of course, for an opera singer as much as for any performing artist looks are fleeting. The voice is a different matter, with most sopranos and tenors entering their prime in their mid 40’s. And here, both Ms. Damrau and Mr. Grigolo are right there, at the top of their games. She has the suppleness of voice to sing her Act I waltz with grace and agility, and the capacity to dispatch the most dramatic passages with the same authority as she sings the lyrical moments in the role.

Vittorio Grigolo is a fine, youthful and elegant Romeo, as good as some of the great Romeos of the past, with the distinct advantage of possessing a lyric tenor voice never bothered by the high passages in the music. His delivery of Ah, leve toi soleil! is marvelous and his handling  of the French text is just about flawless. And then, he looks like an Italian youth of the time.

The remainder of the cast is strong. Elliot Madore is a mercurial Mercutio and sings the Queen Mab aria very well indeed. The Friar Laurent is nicely sung by Russian bass Mikhail Petrenko and Virginie Verrez is the troublemaking  but charming Stephano.

The MET orchestra and orchestra excels under the baton of Gianandrea Noseda. Here’s hoping that the MET continues to deliver productions and casts on this level. Next up on HD, Il Barbiere di Siviglia, also in a production by the factotum Bartlet Sher, a director who manages to create fresh and inventive takes on old warhorses without the excesses of European Regietheater.

Rafael de Acha



It is both encouraging and challenging to one who reviews music – both live and recorded – to frequently receive sample CD’s by unknown artists for reviewing. When a new one arrives it usually sits on my desktop waiting its turn to be seriously listened to and evaluated.

But this morning it was different. I opened a package containing ASCENSION, a self-produced sampler CD of Russian-born guitarist Yuri Liberzon (www.yuriguitar.com) and casually put it on the CD player, and then even more casually went about my Saturday morning multi-tasking tasks.  And then something happened: the music stopped me on my mundane tracks.

I sat down to really listen, and I was enchanted.

In lesser hands this album could be deemed a musical grab bag of guitar evergreens, but Liberzon gracefully programs John Lennon/Paul McCartney’s Michelle back to back with Ernesto Lecuona’s Danza Lucumi, segues it with a Russian piece of Euro-pop provenance, then surprises us with a couple of Domenico Scarlatti sonatas transcribed by the guitarist himself.

Liberzon next takes on undaunted J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor, again in his own transcription from the original for solo violin. The last two tracks of the CD take us back to the world of jazz-inflected music with a six-minute-long composition by Keith Jarrett and, as the CD’s closing track, John Lennon/Paul McCartney’s Yesterday.

The entire mix works thanks to the impeccable taste of the artist.

Liberzon, who acknowledges among his musical mentors, Cuban master Manuel Barrueco, is a formidable technician who at no time appears to be out of his element, no matter how impossibly difficult the contrapuntal writing (Lecuona) or the agility demanded by pieces not meant for the guitar (Scarlatti, Bach).

But beyond technical dexterity, Liberzon is a resourcefully stylish artist possessing a strong ability to make his instrument change timbre and colors to better serve the music at hand.

I would recommend to anyone who loves the most intimate of instruments to order this album from its artist/producer, beautifully packaged and engineered as it is.

We now have to look forward to Liberzon’s next CD gem.

Rafael de Acha



In his insightful liner notes to the Westminster Williamson Voices’ Hole in the Sky (CD995 on the GIA Choral Works label – www.giamusic.com), conductor James Jordan quotes a line from the text of Thomas LaVoy’s setting of “As I Walk the Silent Earth” and eloquently speaks about “certain pieces of music that, by their very nature, ‘tear a hole in the sky…of our spirits and souls’.”

The worship music sung by the extraordinary double ensemble that makes up the Westminster Williamson Voices does speak directly to the spirit of the listener. It did to me.

The Spheres from Sunrise Mass I by the Norwegian-American Ola Gjeilo provides a haunting introduction to the album, eliciting seamless phrasing and subtle dynamics from the ensemble.

James Joyce’s Rain on Rahoon is the text for Eric Whitacre’s She Weeps Over Rahoon, with its intriguing use of pianissimo whispers simultaneous to singing, nicely executed by the choir.

Stephen Paulus’ Pilgrims’ Hymns takes a biblical passage and infuse it with theatricality, to which the ensemble responds in kind.

Aaron Copland’s arrangement of the Baptist hymn, Shall We Gather at the River is soulfully sung by Jordan’s troops.

Through fifteen impeccably-engineered tracks (Jon C. Baker Recordings), the The sound of the upper voices is lyrical, the bass sound at the opposite end of the staff rock solid, the inner voices of the altos and tenors always up front and present, creating an ongoing balance in all the tracks.

The ensemble comfortably transitions from a note-perfect Kyrie by Victoria to the Romanticism of Mendelssohn’s Veni Domine and Bruckner, to the ecstatic mysticism of the Estonian composer Arvo Pärt’s Da pacem Domine, and on to very fine settings by Dan Forrest, Alice Parker, Britten and Duruflé.

Guided magisterially by James Jordan, the Westminster Williamson Voices sing with flawless musicianship, exquisite musicality and gorgeous vocalism. This is one of the most satisfying releases of choral music in this listener’s memory.

More, please!

Rafael de Acha










I have sympathy for the people in charge of the casting department at the Metropolitan Opera. They have to deal with many singers from a number of countries whose schedules have to dovetail with that of the MET. Contracts have to be negotiated two or three or four years in advance, especially these days in which opera companies vie for the services of a limited number of singers available to do a specific role. The singers must be hired to perform their assignment – one already mastered and made part of their repertory – at a specific period of time in the midst of busy careers. They must be hired for a fee affordable to the opera company and acceptable to the singer’s personal management. Indeed, this is a tough job for those doing the hiring.


Having started to go to the opera at age fourteen and now, half a century later continuing to support my habit, I have to confess that after attending many operatic performances today I come away disenchanted with the state of affairs in the world of high C’s and higher fees. Today’s HD presentation of Verdi’s Nabucco was a case in point.


Of the names in the cast, three were immediately recognizable to me: Jamie Barton, a fast-rising young mezzo-soprano with an imposing voice, Russell Thomas, a fine lyric-spinto tenor on the brink of a major career, and Placido Domingo. Ms. Barton’s engagements are beginning to include some of the “big girl” Verdian and Wagnerian roles. She sang with conviction the role of Fenena, the younger daughter of the Babylonian king, Nabucco.  Mr. Thomas sang eloquently, turning an ungrateful supporting role into an important one.


Placido Domingo sang the title role. No news to anybody who keeps up with opera news in Opera News, Mr. Domingo is 75 years old. During the best part of a distinguished fifty year career, the Spanish tenor has sung just about every major role in the Italian, French, German and Russian repertoires. Starting a few years ago, Mr. Domingo decided to stop singing the tenor repertoire and slowly started to add major Verdi baritone roles to his resume. He has had mixed results with this.


Verdi wrote for some of the great singers of his time. Baritone Giorgio Ronconi was his first and formidable Nabucco. The composer’s future wife, Giuseppina Strepponi was by-all-accounts an amazing Abigaille. The star French basso Prosper Dérivis was Zaccaria. Two centuries later at the MET and throughout America we have seen and heard some great Nabucco casts.


Quite a few names come to mind:  Leo Nucci, Renato Bruson, Sheryl Milnes, Tito Gobbi – all exceptional singers of the title role. Baritones ready to take on the role of Nabucco are not many. The part of the Babylonian despot calls for a good deal of angry utterances – the King is not happy most of the time, and when unhappy he/Verdi express this by a good deal of parlando snarling smack in the middle of the baritone voice: that tricky region between the D to d octave where most of the role’s music lies.


Then there is much  legato singing required of the baritone, notably in the aria, Dio di Giuda, in Act III. For a Verdi baritone this is not one of the highest lying parts, certainly nothing comparable to Rigoletto, Germont, Boccanegra with their high tessitura. Instead, this is dramatic baritone territory calling for lots of cutting power in the baritone’s middle voice. A tenor without the baritone’s dark coloring needed to score points in the part’s “money notes” is no substitute for the real deal.


A few  singers come to mind, some of which may be artists who have neither prepared nor wanted to undertake the role of the Babylonian king. But, in my opinion, Željko Lučić , George Gadnize, and Mark Delavan, are true-blue Verdi baritones quite capable of summoning the high reserves of sound needed for the ensembles and  “big moments” that abound in Nabucco.


Today’s MET Abigaille, the Russian soprano Liudmyla Monastyrska is a singer with a typically Slavic vocal production totally unsuited to that assignment. In reality a Bel Canto soprano or high mezzo is needed who can traverse a two-octave-plus range, command extraordinary vocal agility, and possess a chameleonic talent to change vocal colorings. Ms. Monastyrska, unfortunately has not conquered the demands of the role.


Boris Christoff, Giorgio Tozzi, Cesare Siepi, Samuel Ramey were some of the great bass singers of the role of Zaccaria that many of us were lucky to hear in person. Morris Robinson, a gigantic man and an equally large-scale artist with a world class basso voice has already sung the role of Zaccaria in Nabucco. Unlike the voice of Dmitri Belosselskiy, the Zaccaria in today’s broadcast, Robinson’s vocal equipment spans with comfort the role’s two octaves replete with high F’s and F#’s and phrases that climax at the bottom of the bass voice. Robinson, by the way, is already singing major roles at the MET. He would be my Zaccaria in a perfect Nabucco cast.


The MET chorus walked away with the performance, singing so beautifully and acting so convincingly that the Va, pensiero lament of the Hebrews had to be encored. Lucky them, lucky MET, lucky us.  James Levine, frail but nonetheless in full command of the Verdi style infused the playing with sweep and grandeur.


The Elijah Moshinsky production does the singers no favors, often leaving them to their own devices perilously careening up and down the steps of an ungainly multi-tiered set, or lined up in a semi-circle singing in oratorio fashion wearing costumes that range from confusing to overwrought.


Casting a major opera season that contains dozens of roles big and small in a couple of dozen operas is no easy matter. But I would hope the MET could do better than it did in today’s Nabucco. The management of our largest opera company could begin by looking closer to home when panning for vocal gold.


Rafael de Acha






Out of the proverbial blue I got a package from this young Australian-born, New York-based musician. “Would I consider…”, wrote he, reviewing on my blog his CD, Fantasias (www.LittleMysteryRecords.com) (LMR103).
Last night I put it on to play and it was well past midnight that, after twice listening to the album’s 19 tracks, I emailed the artist and assured him I would indeed review his CD.
Let me “cut to the chase”, if I may, and state the obvious in a few words: “Guitarist Rupert Boyd is a great musician.” There, I said it and now we can move on to details.
With impeccable technical skills, keen musicianship, and heartfelt musicality, Rupert Boyd takes the listener on a five-century, ten-nation musical journey, displaying all throughout a formidable ability to find a variety of individual colors for each composition.
In Otoño Porteño from Astor Piazzolla’s Four Seasons, Boyd achieves the perfect tone of autumnal, urban melancholy the composer demands from whoever takes on his Argentine homage to Vivaldi. In an arrangement by D. Russell of Four Celtic Songs Boyd attains a plain and plangent tone just perfect for this kind of music. Two wonderful songs by fellow Australian Phillip Houghton are hauntingly played by Boyd. Falla’s Pantomima and Miller’s Dance from The Three-cornered Hat are given here in arrangements for the solo guitar that retain the orchestral intricacy of the originals. Boyd plays them with lots of Spanish salero.
Fantasie – originally a John Dowland piece for lute, serves to display Boyd’s impressive mastery of the Late-Renaissance-Early Baroque style of the English master. The unfairly lesser-known Cuban composer Leo Brower provides with his Tres Apuntes three modestly-titled though complex sketches that range from the “zapateado” rhythms of Del Homenaje a Falla to a gentle lullaby, to an agile Cuban take on a Bulgarian folk song, all three of which Boyd takes in stride. Byron Yasui’s Fantasy on a Hawaiian Lullabye is played with delicate wistfulness by the artist.
As it often happens with the vast repertory of music for guitar, there is much to be discovered as long as an enterprising artist does the searching for hidden treasures. Thus, Boyd treats the listener to his elegant playing of a Fantasia by the Italian Early Romanticist, Luigi Legnani, an obscure late Romantic Prelude by the Swiss composer, Aloÿs Fornerod, another Etude by the Brazilian Heitor Villalobos, and El Noi de la Mare (The Child of the Sea), a Catalan folk song that in its haunting simplicity becomes one of the gems of this collection.
I wanted the album to end right there but there was one more track waiting to be played: a Fantasia on Verdi’s La traviata by the 19th century Spanish composer, Julián Arcas in which Rupert Boyd’s guitar succeeds in variously sounding like a soprano and an orchestra. For myself I am more than satisfied with the up-close and intimate engineering and by the CD’s neat packaging and Boyd’s scholarly notes. But it is the playing that which causes me to entreat all lovers of guitar music to buy a copy of this gem of an album by a major artist.
Rafael de Acha







































Forthcoming Geniality

In his own insightful notes to the impressively varied Piano Music of Jack Gallagher (Centaur CRC 3522) (www.centaurrecords.com ) the composer returns more than once to the word “affability” to describe several of the seven compositions that felicitously occupy the album’s 22 tracks. But, beyond the forthcoming geniality and melodic variety that Gallagher’s music possesses, his compositions reveal an artistry and technical knowledge of the tools of the composer’s trade far beyond those of a mere tunesmith.

In spite of writing in an unabashedly Romantic vein, Gallagher composes music that never lapses into predictability. And, without any academic posturing, this gifted artist fully commands the severe structural challenges of the various forms he adopts.

In Sonata for Piano (1973/2005) the composer makes his work both demanding and rewarding in all three movements, especially in the fiercely challenging closing Allegro.

In Evening Music he adopts a nocturnal tone where moody melody predominates above all else.

In Sonatina for Piano, Gallagher uses the Classical sonata form, as he does in the opening tracks, but this time scaled down in scope and duration, though not in its enticing technical hurdles, as in the final Vivo.

Again and again, the works are dedicated to friends both living and departed, to family, to births, to birthdays, imbuing the compositions with intense sentiment that nevertheless retains elegance throughout, never lapsing into banality or sentimentality.

Six Bagatelles is charming, mercurial in its moods, unpretentious and inventive in its adaptation of Baroque forms.

Pastorale is a brief and bucolic homage to Maurice Ravel, filled with unpredictable harmonies.

Six Pieces for Kelly is designed for young performers, albeit for youngsters with significant pianistic skills, as it cleverly mines for rhythms from everywhere from Scotland to the Balkans.

Malambo takes the Argentine country dance form that juxtaposes diverse driving rhythms, giving the pianist a workout and the recording a possible big finish. However, the composer prefers to end the CD with the quietly gentle, Happy Birthday, April.

Frank Huang is the protean pianist in the recording. His playing is remarkable throughout, rock solid in the daunting Allegro of the Sonata for Piano with its crisscrossing octaves, most impressive in the no-holds-barred approach to the daunting Malambo, and gentle of touch in the many lyrical passages in Nocturne and Pastorale.

The CD is well-packaged, replete with program notes and impeccably engineered by Joshua Sauvageau. More about the artists may be read in www.crossovermedia.net , in www.jackgallaghermusic.com  and in www.frankhuangpiano.com

Rafael de Acha