SUMMERMUSIK 2018

 

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Take 32 excellent musicians already accustomed to playing together under the banner of Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra.

Add to the mix a superb conductor whom they like and the audience likes and who likes and respects both musicians and audience.

Assemble a top notch staff willing to work extra long hours during the weeks leading up to the 4-week long event that they labor for year-round.

Assemble a dedicated board of directors that support all that goes into turning a dream into reality.

Line up some up and coming soloists.

Find the right venues.

Create over a period of a few years a base of support and a loyal following.

Concentrate all performances into a period of roughly 4 weeks at a time when nothing much else is going on in Cincinnati.

Give it a catchy name.

Create sharp marketing with a casual vibe.

Do all of that and you have Summermusik, the five year old, ever-young festival that music lovers look forward to every year.

To give you just a random idea, this year’s offerings include British music on opening night with young cellist Coleman Iztkoff playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and the orchestra playing Haydn’s London Symphony. Later the lineup of soloists includes pianist Christopher O’Riley taking on Shostakovich Piano Concerto no. 1 and violinist Elizabeth Pitcairn tackling music by Tan Dun and John Corigliano. There’s Vivaldi’s The Seasons and there’s much cross-over stuff in the weeknight pub crawls.

The line-up of four Saturday night concerts, each followed the next day by an informal afternoon chamber concert, all interspersed with weeknights pub crawls with music that blurs the dividing lines between classical and jazz, is all of it lovingly tended to by Eckart Preu (pronounce that Proy and you’ll be pretty close to the right German pronunciation). He is a youthful forty-something, personable, tall and ruggedly handsome, German born and trained. But, what is more important than age and looks and personality and birthplace and training is that Preu is simply a very fine conductor.

Check him out on his website: http://www.orchestraconductor.org

The rank and file of the orchestra loved him when he was here for the first time to conduct the final concert of the CCO’s 2016 season. The audience loved him too. Musically speaking he scored with everyone, including me. Here’s what I wrote after his concert that September:

“Eckart Preu is an immensely talented conductor, one capable of moving with ease from the cutting edge sounds of del Águila and Bjarnason to the Americana of Aaron Copland and then on to the Gallic Romanticism of Saint-Saëns and, finally, impress with an exquisite Mozart performance. This concert concludes the 2016 season by reminding us of how fortunate it is for us to have not one but two great orchestras in our town. But, beyond that, of the two, the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra has been reborn into a very fine ensemble, and that is more than cause for celebration. What lies ahead now is the choice of Music Director for this worthy member organization of the music scene in Cincinnati, one who will lead it into the next chapter of its musical life. After hearing tonight’s performance I know who my choice would be.”

Rafael de Acha

Go to http://www.ccocincinnati.org for tickets and details.

OPERA (not your grandfather’s…)

 

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Cincinnati offers a moveable feast of music during the summer months, especially Classical music, but Classical with equal doses of contemporary sensibilities.

So far this year the Cincinnati Opera delivered a top notch production of Traviata and then followed it with a well-sung Flying Dutchman. Just weeks before those, the scrappy Queen City Opera brought a thoughtfully cast Iolanta to its namesake, with a splendidly cast group of young singers that rose up to the challenge of singing Tchaikovsky’s music in Russian.

Now, just around the corner, the Cincinnati Opera will have the Pink Floyd-inspired Another Brick in the Wall (https://youtu.be/rOtpn8EPob4) on the stage of Music Hall, and will follow that with a new work based on the life experiences of film maker Kimberly Reed, Laura Kaminsky‘s one-act opera As One (https://youtu.be/aIu5GNPL5MM). Learn more at http://www.cincinnatiopera.org.

It will staged in a newly refurbished and intimate space in the same building.

Still more Opera..? Yes, but not your grandfather’…

Instead, a brainchild of CSO clarinetist Ixi Chen, concert:nova (all in lower case but with lofty goals) steps up to the operatic plate with The Bradbury Tattoos: A Rock Opera, an operatic collaboration with fusion composer Zac Greenberg, librettist and playwright Michael Burnham, and tattoo artist Steven Mast, made from tales in Ray Bradbury’s book The Illustrated Man.

For tickets and further information go to concertnova.com

On the heels of that, soprano and CCM voice professor Amy Johnson momentarily changes hats, producing hand-in-hand with Maestro Mark Gibson  Donizetti’s Don Pasquale. Johnson’s husband, baritone Vernon Hartman will tread the boards in that show in the central role of the old codger who becomes infatuated with a beauty one fourth his age.

One performance  on Sunday July 29 at 4 pm, in the Cohen space at CCM

As the other principals and chorus, a group of some fifty young hopefuls will appear in the Donizetti, after holding their own in an Offenbach double bill on Friday, July 27 at 7 pm. All of that is part of a month- long Opera Boot Camp (https://youtu.be/0DwmRlBwzXE), run by the Johnson-Gibson team at CCM.

Word to the wise: FREE ADMISSION. OPEN SEATING. Also in the Cohen space at CCM.

For further information:
Queen City Opera – queencityopera.org
Cincinnati Opera – http://www.cincinnatiopera.org
concert:nova – concertnova.com
Opera Boot Camp – Phone: 513-556-5662 Email: ccmsummer@uc.edu

IMPROVING WAGNER

 

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IMPROVING WAGANER OR HOW TO SCUTTLE A WAGNER OPERA WITH A SHIP IN IT (photographs from various European productions)

I just attended a performance of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, an early work that predates most of the rest of his output, except for Das Liebesverbot (a travesty of Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure), the very good Rienzi, and the early youthful effort Die Feen, and I gave the Cincinnati Opera’s first replay of this Wagnerian opera in nearly two decades a polite review.

It was not a pan and it was not a rave. I saluted the orchestra, conductor, chorus and cast, and I politely ignored what I thought was a sorely misconceived production, yet another example of Regietheater in which the hopefully well-intentioned director attempts to “improve ” on Wagner at the risk of making a mess of things.

During the overture – one of the finest in the Wagnerian canon – there was an unrelenting projection that, I suspect, wanted to remind us that this was an opera about the ocean and its fury, among other things. But what I could not avoid watching was a series of scratches and lines and water drops, mostly in black and grey and red, on and on for the entire length of the overture.

Then the curtain rose to reveal a unit set that was meant to morph as needed by the director and designer into Daland’s ship, the Dutchman’s ship, and Senta’s workplace, to name but three of the locations specified by Wagner. Then there was the relocating of the story into what presumably was a mid- 20th century setting. And that’s where the troubles really began to pile up.

Wagner specifies in his very detailed, very specific markings: “… a seashore encircled by cliffs…the sea occupying most of the stage area…bad weather…an impending hurricane…Daland’s ship lowers the anchor near the shore…the sailors are busy trying to trim the sails… using the ropes to secure the vessel… Daland goes ashore…ascends a promontory…surveys the landscape and recognizes it as a familiar one…”

That is what Wagner envisioned and consistently achieved with 19th century theater technology. That is not what we saw on stage in the Cincinnati production, notwithstanding the hard-working chorus and principals.

After intermission we now were in what looked like Daland’s Dry Cleaning Services, where a couple of sewing machines were placed on stage to give us fair warning that there would be no Spinning Chorus. Instead we had the Sheet Chorus, in which the ladies of the chorus dutifully followed the director’s instructions to just fool around with the sheets with no apparent purpose. There was no folding, no repair work, nothing, just a number of identically-dressed sopranos and altos playing with the sheets up and down, up and down… Endlessly…

Unit sets can work wonders when put to use with skill and imagination. The Greeks were using unit sets in their tragedies two millennia ago, and they could still pull off deus ex machina feats. Lope and Cervantes worked with unit sets, Moliere did as well. And in recent times some highly skilled directors and designers have proven that imagination can fill in a great deal of detail within the limitations of a unit set, proving that often in theatre, less is more

But the set in last night’s Dutchman did nothing to propel the story forward or clarify it. A smart friend who goes to the theater all the time asked me at intermission a couple of questions that clearly evidenced that she was loving the music, but had no clue as to the what or where or when or why of what was happening on stage. And that confusion is the result of wrongheaded staging.

Fortunately the principals were savvy pros who knew their way around any stage. The Dutchman, who deserves the bone-chilling entrance he could have had down a staircase prominently situated upstage center, instead made his first appearance through a stage-right door part of the lip of the proscenium, usually used for musicians to enter the stage in a concert. It robbed that moment of badly-needed dramatic punch. The red raincoat that the singer sported was at the nadir of the production’s costume design.

In the final moments of the opera, the excellent soprano performing Senta was instructed to climb a long, two-story-high metal ladder, wearing medium heel shoes and a crinoline skirt, to then perch herself on a window sill, sing her final note, and promptly fall backwards onto a pile of mattresses meant to be out of sight, thus giving the impression that she had fallen from a height to certain death.

But, sad to tell, our last glimpse of her was one of her right foot sticking out in plain sight. What followed then was the return on stage of a mannequin dressed in identical clothing to Senta’s that was strategically surrounded by the chorus. Up above the stage, in silhouette, the ghosts of the Dutchman and Senta approached each other and struck a “The End” pose as the curtain came down, while many in the audience made a bee line for the parking lot.

Among American audiences, some do not welcome modern-dress productions of operas with which they are familiar. I am among those recalcitrant folks.  The multimillion Ring at the MET has been widely loathed by both singers who have had to deal with its now-on, now-off hydraulics and the Wagnerites who would happily see a return of the wonderful Otto Schenk production. A recent Tosca at the MET, courtesy of director Luc Bondy was universally booed by audience and critics alike and replaced by a better one, in which the Santa Maria della Valle church in Act I looks like the one Puccini specified, and the very one that many of us have wanted to see again on stage since the days of Franco Zeffirelli.

Composers who were savvy men of the theatre were always very clear as to how they wanted their operas staged. Verdi fought long and hard to have his Traviata set in the mid-century Paris of Dumas, and when he finally was able to control everything from casting to set design to stage direction he stood firm. Puccini was unbending about staging details. Wagner, likewise, became his own regisseur and producer.

It would be unthinkable to modify the orchestration that a composer specifies for his score or to tweak the melody or harmony of the composition. So why then take liberties with something as intrinsic to Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk or Verdi’s or Puccini’s works as the settings of their operas?

When an intelligent director comes along and injects new life into tired old warhorses, it is a cause for celebration, if and when he or she respects the intention of the composer and resists superimposing his or her ego on masterworks that have been alive and well for many years.

Here’s hoping.

The Flying Dutchman in Cincinnati

FLYING DUTCHMANWith the 1843 premiere of The Flying Dutchman Wagner vowed to take a new path. Just the same as with the errant mariner who must navigate the seas for all eternity until he finds the true love of a woman, Wagner was embarking on a voyage from which he could never return.

Wagner and Cossima were flat broke and on their way to possible greener pastures in London and Paris, but in neither city were the members of the musical establishment willing to embrace the short and sullen German who, with his Frau in tow, was there to shop his somber metaphysical tale of woe and redemption in one long act.

So, it was back to the drawing board: turn the opera into a three-act one, throw in a couple of rousing choral numbers, add a jolly sailor’s hornpipe, and plug in a little levity to alleviate the pitch-dark plot and then see what happens. What happened, of course, is the stuff of musical history: The Dutchman established Wagner as someone to take notice of and listen to, Tanhäusser and Lohengrin then followed in succession, Wagner and King Ludwig of Bavaria found each other, the mad sovereign built him the Bayreuth theatre, and the Wagner’s were finally financially set for life.

Wagner vowed to take a new path. Just like the errant mariner who must navigate the seas for all eternity until he finds the true love of a woman, Wagner was embarking on a voyage from which he could never return.

At the ship’s wheel in Cincinnati welcome Christof Perick who elicits a fantastic performance from the Cincinnati Opera orchestra, chorus and cast.

In the central title role, Canadian bass-baritone Nathan Berg is a menacing, towering, haunted presence, undertaking a role that has been inhabited by a long list of greats, a list to which his name must now be added. With an inky voice that comfortably surmounts the role’s unreasonable vocal demands, Berg spins out a seamless line in the duet with Senta not long after raising the rafters in his opening Die Frist ist um.

Marcy Stonikas is a statuesque Senta, whom she portrays as a lonely, slightly neurotic girl in her early twenties who has never known anything other than life at home in a village by the sea. Her voice has equal parts of silk and steel, and she holds her own through the three-hour long performance

The other principals are flawlessly cast and deliver deeply committed performances in their various roles. Jay Hunter Morris is an earnest Erik, compelling in his jealous scene with Senta. Basso Arthur Woodley is a lyrical, fatherly and charming Daland, wonderful in his aria Mögst du, mein Kind, den fremden Mann wilkommen heissen. The fast-rising young tenor Frederick Ballentine is a sonorous Steersman. Veteran mezzo Elizabeth Bishop is a fine Mary.

Purists and traditionalists will no doubt find much to complain about in this updated take on Wagner’s 19th century Gothic tale. I, for one, found the physical production more of an obstruction, including the overuse of abstract projected imagery. On the other hand, neophytes brought to sit through their first Wagner ever will be thrilled by the show, which comes with all manner of theatrical bells and whistles, state-of-the-art projections by S. Katy Tucker and moody lighting by Thomas C. Hase.

The Flying Dutchman has sailed into Cincinnati for the first time in nearly twenty years in Tomer Zvulun’s modern dress co-production with The Atlanta Opera and Houston Grand Opera. The not so good news is that the phantom vessel was at docked at Music Hall for only a couple of performances. Anyone who loves world-class opera should at all costs catch the next operatic vessel at anchor here before that next ship sets sail from Cincinnati again. That would be Another Brick on the Wall, which opens July 20th.

Rafael de Acha

 

YALIL GUERRA: A CUBAN ICONOCLAST

yalil guerra

Amazing how connections happen on Facebook! Thanks to a post by another Facebook friend I came upon the name of Yalil Guerra, a Cuban-born composer now residing in California. Aside from the serendipity of making friends with this fellow Cuban musician, there’s the added reward of his music being a most interesting discovery.

This all began when another Facebook friend sent a clip of a piano trio playing a heartfelt ‘La Bella Cubana’, a 19th century Cuban song by José White in an exquisite arrangement by Guerra. Several Facebook and email messages followed in both directions, after which I sat down to listen to Yalil Guerra’s String Quartet No. 3, “In Memoriam Ludwig van Beethoven” (https://youtu.be/R9AfDfAIBck)

Yalil Guerra has the talent to straddle comfortably two musical worlds. His String Quartet No. 3 has its musical roots in 20th century atonality. It is an elegantly constructed composition that provides its players with a full workout and that clearly belongs in the realm of contemporary art music. Contemporary and filled with intricacy and the asperities that occupy stage center in the world of post Schoenberg musical composition, yet eminently accessible.

And then there’s the ‘other’ Yalil Guerra. Having grown up in a musical show biz family in his native Cuba he toured with Mon and Dad and Sister Yamila, then traversed the journey of a serious musician, with conservatory training in Havana, then Spain, then UCLA. He then branches out and rather than waiting for the next gig to come his way he creates his own recording studio and production company: RYCY Productions Inc., where he then goes on to record his own music and that of others.

Here is two highlights from his score for the documentary film A WEEKEND IN HAVANA with some red hot music from his pen: https://youtu.be/5MgjVlF-MH0 https://youtu.be/kfC5-M3g6Og

Turn that sizzling page to another Havana inspired piece: OLD HAVANA: https://youtu.be/EDiJqURDWeA and you will hear yet another facet of his musical prism: the deeply melancholy sound of another one of us islanders who can’t quite get homesickness out of his heart.

I am happy to have found Yalil Guerra, the friend and over the Havana moon to have discovered his quintessentially Cuban music.

Rafael de Acha