Lil’ David played on his harp in biblical times long before anyone conceived of actually writing music for it or employing it as an essential member of the symphony orchestra.

But in spite of its advanced age, the harp did not earn the respect it merits until the Franco-American Marcel Grandjanny adopted it as his chosen musical companion. It is a good thing he did, for were it not for his efforts to validate its importance, the very large and very hard to play harp would be one of the most underused members of the symphony orchestra.

And were it not for DELOS one would be hard put to find many CD’s dedicated to harp music. Music for Harp and Flute is the name of this 2002 release featuring two instruments long associated with ethereal sounds.

Center stage in this splendid recording are the Russian harpist Tatiana Oskolkova and flautist Oleg Sergeev, generously supported with the accompaniment of Constantine Orbelian’s Moscow Chamber Orchestra and its String Quartet, and the clarinet of Sergei Bolshakov.

The CD includes Mozart’s ubiquitous Concerto for Flute and Harp, Grandjanny’s Aria in Classic Style for Harp and Orchestra, Svetlanov’s Russian Variations for Harp and Orchestra, and Ravel’s miniature masterpiece Introduction and Allegro for Harp, Flute, Clarinet and String Quartet.

The playing of both soloists is exquisite, with Oskolkova producing a myriad sounds ranging from gossamer filigree to tapping on her instrument. Sergeev’s playing is agile and elegant in the Mozart and perfectly in sync with his fellow musicians in the Ravel.

Rafael de Acha



On Friday September 15, 2006 Siberian-Russian baritone, Dmitri Hvorostovsky was backed by The Moscow Chamber Orchestra, led by Constantine Orbelian, and the folkloric group, Style of Five in an all-Russian concert at Oktyabrsky Hall in St. Petersburg.

At age 44, and years before the illness that took him from us so prematurely, Hvorostovsky was then at the pinnacle of his prime.

The vocal wealth that made him one of top baritones of our time, the elegant sobriety of his stage persona, his impassioned way with the poetry and music of his homeland, his unflagging intellectual and emotional commitment to music and lyrics in equal parts were all there.

Only an artist of the stature of Hvorostovsky would dare program an all-Russian or all-anything lineup of songs belonging to neither the strictly-classical repertoire, nor to the world of Pop. But Hvorostovsky and his unimpeachable collaborators pull off this feat with impeccable taste and honest simplicity.

Mind you, this repertoire is enriched by the words of Russian poets of the level of Yevtushenko and Turgenev, and set to intensely emotional music by composers whose names are largely unfamiliar to listeners outside Russia but which are not only familiar to but beloved by Russians.

One gem follows another in seamless succession, with most of the songs provoking enthusiastic response from the capacity audience. The Bulakhov-Vyazemsky Troika (a favorite after repeated listening) enlivens the end of the first half with its brisk tempo and catchy melody, given an all-Russian color by the accompanying Style of Five ensemble.

Music director Constantine Orbelian, whose work this listener has long admired and frequently reviewed on this blog, provides inspiring support to Hvorostovsky in all the vocal selections.

The maestro opens the concert with two orchestral selections that involve the superb Style of Five. He then warms things up with the Spanish Dance from the 1955 Soviet film, Ovod (Gadfly) for which Dmitri Shostakovich contributed the score.

Still later Orbelian interjects the well-known waltz from Aram Khachaturian’s Masquerade, brilliantly conducting it with whatever the Russian equivalent word is for pizzazz.

The DVD, released by DELOS a few years ago merits renewed attention as yet one more sampler of the magical voice and art of one of the great baritones of our time.

Rafael de Acha


DE-3269-2 Rachmaninoff composed Aleko at age 19, as a student project at the Moscow Conservatory. The work is a great vehicle for a star baritone, with the part’s vocal writing hueing closer in range and tessitura to that of the bass-baritone.

The list of both dramatic baritones and high basses who have sung the role since Chaliapin first did reads like a who’s who of low-voiced 20th century singers: Petrov, Nesterenko, Leiferkus…

Vassily Gerello, a baritone whose sterling-bright voice vividly reminds this listener of the great Armenian baritone Pavel Lisitsian, fully inhabits the title role. Now that I hear Rachmaninoff’s music for Aleko sung by Gerello, I much prefer him to having a bass struggling with the high-lying moments of the part.

Especially in his cavatina, Gerello sings with great depth of feeling and attention to the music, though never at the expense of the exemplarily-enunciated text.

The story, inspired by a Pushkin poem, was shaped into a libretto by Vladimir I. Nemirovich-Danchenko, Stanislavsky’s dramaturge and second in command at the Moscow Art Theatre.

The story of ill-fated love, jealousy and murder belongs in the world of Italian Verismo, which makes sense when one recalls that the New York City Opera once gave Aleko in a double bill with Pagliacci.

Rachmaninoff’s music explicitly points here in the direction of the 20th century, bearing some of the unpredictably far-afield harmonic journeys of which the composer was so fond. But the vocal line is unmistakably Russian, though colored with Romani inflections depicting both the seemingly carefree gypsy life and the pain and passions lurking underneath it.
Aleko is structured in thirteen scenes each of which gets a track in this recording. Orchestral interludes, choral numbers, dance sequences, arias, ensembles and duets follow each other in quick succession, with no scene overstaying its welcome.

The part of Aleko gets the one true aria in the entire score: a lovely cavatina that becomes a great solo scene for the baritone.

But notwithstanding a couple of small-scale chamber operas, and yet another two lyric projects that came to naught, Rachmaninoff found more fertile pastures writing for the piano and the orchestra. How unfortunate that is, for the composer of all of those grand piano concerti evidences here a wonderful flair for all that makes Russian opera so unique, with its use of old Slavonic gestures, long, overarching, sweeping vocal lines, and terrific dance and choral interludes.
The cast of five principals, the State Academic Choir, and the Moscow Chamber Orchestra led by Constantine Orbelian are all excellent, with the American maestro imprinting the music with his formidable knowledge of and flair for Russian music.

As the Carmen-like spitfire Zelmira, soprano Olga Guryakova displays a beautiful full-voiced lyric soprano and plenty of passion that she injects into every note of her music.

Bass Mikhail Kit as The Old Gypsy is immensely effective in his role.

Tenor Vsevolod Grivnov, possessor of a quintessentially Russian tenor sound is very good in his brief but important part as The Young Gypsy object of Zelmira’s extra-marital affections, and impressive in his brief romance.

Contralto Elena Manikhina, makes a memorable impression as The Old Gypsy Woman.

This is an interesting release, accompanied by a complete text of the opera in Russian, transliterated into our alphabet, and accompanied by a sensible English translation. The CD with the music is accompanied by a second CD in which the actor Michael York reads the Pushkin poem, The Gypsies in English, and Russian stage and film star Vassily Lanovoy reads it in Russian.

DELOS invites its customers to link to , where additional links to Rachmaninoff sites and other interesting features are available to the curious fan.

Recorded in 2000, this well engineered DELOS recent release (DE3269) is yet another contribution by the ever-enterprising label to the operatic catalogue.

Rafael de Acha




Time was when the so-called tenore leggiero or tenore di grazia or, in plain English, light lyric tenor held his own in the Bellini, Donizetti, Rossini repertoire.

In the early 20th century artists like Tito Schipa and Alessandro Bonci had exclusive ownership of the Bel Canto repertoire. That trend continued well into the 1970’s, with light tenors Ernesto Palacios, Luigi Alva, and Cesare Valletti singing whatever Rossini or Bellini was offered them.

These fine singers knew how to stay within the boundaries of their area of specialty. But then the big-voiced boys arrived and suddenly invaded the leggiero turf.

There was Pavarotti taking on The Daughter of the Regiment and Placido Domingo being cast as Nemorino.

Fortunately we have returned to times in which common sense prevails.

Welcome Lawrence Brownlee, a full-blooded Bel Canto tenor with enchanting style, awesome technique and just the right mix of sweetness and squillo in his ample voice to fearlessly conquer everything from the light folderol of Donizetti’s Rita to the stillness, gravity and legato of Bellini’s A te, o cara, over a two-octave plus range.

In the DELOS CD Allegro Io son Brownlee has an exemplary partner in Constantine Orbelian, who leads the Kaunas City Symphony with unflagging attention to his singer’s needs.

The CD comes with a nice booklet with translations of all the arias. We got a winner.

Rafael de Acha



Straddling the northern region of South America and the westernmost areas of Central America, Colombia is a crossroads for music with Native Indian, African and European roots. And so we get the languidly melancholic bambuco, the up tempo bambuco fiestero, the elegant vals, and the rhythmically-driven porro.

Travel further south and you will encounter the sometimes intricately-syncopated or (depending) laid-back Brazilian choro. Go east from Colombia to Venezuela or south west towards Ecuador and you will hear the strains of the warp-speed pasillo in both those countries.

Rich stuff!

The Ambar Music Group became a quartet specializing in world music, among many other kinds of music, especially that from Colombia, the country of birth of three of its members. By happenchance or by design of the gods of music, a Russian violin virtuoso Sasha Rozhdestvensky joined the Ambar members, carrying, no less a Guarnieri del Gesu and a Strad on loan from an angel.

The peripatetic Constantin Orbelian was invited by DELOS to accompany the Ambar members in two of the thirteen tracks, and two more musicians augmented a couple of the tracks.

The results are marvelous.

The entire album, even when the music is nice and slow and voluptuous, is energizing. Often toe-tapping cross-rhythms defy one to get up and dance (which I did a couple of times). The playing is virtuosic, not surprisingly given the conservatory chops of these four musicians.

But past one’s visceral reactions to this deeply honest music and its dazzling execution, one feels gratitude to Delos and to Francisco Gonzalez, Nelson Gomez, Juan Fernando Garcia, Sasha Rozhdestvensky and Constantin Orbelian for introducing a vast number of us to this fabulous repertoire.

Rafael de Acha


DE3558cover-1024x1024In the DELOS just-released BRAHMS HUNGARIAN DANCES (DE 3558) German violinist Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker and Italian pianist Fabio Bidini compellingly make a case with their playing for the erasing of any and all national boundaries.

The duo lovingly makes this minor miracle happen by playing this category-defying music with equal quantities of Hungarian szenvedély and szomorú spiced with a nice dose of Italian passione, further tempered by impeccable musicianship and flawless technique.

The resulting musical feast should be enjoyed by anyone who loves Brahms and or violin and or Roma music.

I have a challenge ahead of me, though a negligible one: Do I file this in my CD library as Classical or as World Music? Yes, I know, Brahms laid claims to these 21 miniature gems by publishing them as “set by J. Brahms.”

Mind you, he neither used the German words for “arranged by” nor “adapted by”, and were I to program them in a concert of my imagination with me playing the violin I cannot begin to play for real, I would list them in the program as Hungarian Dances arranged by Joseph Joachim.

Neither here nor there, you would say, but, for me, these mini-fests of melody are as much verbunkos ideally played by Roma musicians in Budapest cafés as they are long-hair music for the concert hall. 19th century crossover, in other words…

But, thank Heaven for the enterprising and immensely gifted Sabrina-Vivian Höpcker, who lets her classical hair down and grabs this music and does not let go until she has drawn every ounce of passion out of it.

The music is familiar, no doubt, having been played and recorded by many a symphony orchestra. But hearing these tunes played with the capriciousness and flair that Ms. Höpcker and maestro Bidini bring to their playing will elicit not only admiration but curiosity on the part of the alert listener.

Originally conceived by Brahms for piano-4 hands, then some for orchestra, these 21 dances were arranged by the composer’s friend, violin virtuoso Joseph Joachim for violin and piano. I am glad Herr Joachim made these arrangements, more than elated than the Höpcker-Bidini duo made the decision to record them, and immensely grateful to DELOS for the production of this nicely-packaged and perfectly engineered CD.

Rafael de Acha                                                                                 WWW.RAFAELMUSICNOTES.COM



Death in Venice is Britten’s last work for the stage. The composer based it on Thomas Mann’s 1912 short novel of the same title, negotiating with his go-to librettist, Myfanwy Piper to create a distinctly different dramatic landscape from that of the original German language narrative of the same title, until the opera eventually saw its world premiere in 1973.

Given the vast body of works for the stage that Britten created it would be unfair to label Death in Venice Britten’s best opera, although it would be fair to say that it is a significant stage work. Through-composed and largely devoid of set pieces, and neither entirely operatic nor balletic, the work features a group of dancers to portray the family of the Polish boy, Tadzio, a fourteen-year old Adonis that becomes the source of the infatuation that inflames the older writer Aschenbach and that eventually leads him to a tragic end. The themes of the conflict between the lofty Apollonian and the earthly Dionysian impulses, and the obsession of an older man with a younger one recur in this opera, treated perhaps much less obliquely than Britten had in his earlier Turn of the Screw.

The music fluctuates between passages of accompanied recitative and moments of lyricism, especially compelling during the scene changes and the extended dance sequences. The vocal writing, above all that of Aschenbach, a role originally created for Peter Pears, is demanding and replete of melismas. Gone are Britten’s earlier attempts to incorporate 12-tone techniques into his music: instead he stays in a largely melodic, tonal idiom truer to him and his aesthetic.

English tenor, John Daszak does a very fine job in a role long associated with its creator: his singing is potent, and his acting unfussy and ultimately moving. Baritone Leigh Melrose is enormously versatile and vocally impressive in half a dozen roles. Dancer Tomasz Borczyk is a perfect Tadzio, and the quartet of dancers that surround him, portraying the boy’s family is faultless, as is the small ensemble of singing actors that play the appropriately tacky band of players.

Willy Deker staged the handsome production for Madrid’s Teatro Real in 2014 with lovely sets and costumes by Wolfgang Gussmann and Suzana Mendoza. This fine NAXOS DVD was filmed live, with Alejo Perez conducting exemplarily the orchestra and chorus of the theatre.

Rafael de Acha



“Best of” lists will be popping up at every turn over the next few weeks. Here is, admittedly early, my list of musical favorites for 2018, listed in random order. Some of the artists on this list are well known names, some are up and coming individuals. Some are groups that often go unnoticed due to the vagaries of marketing and the sheer number of musical events in our communities. Each and every one of these artists deserves for all of us music lovers to sit up and listen.


In the Cincinnati Opera’s As One, an intriguing chamber work about the perilous journey of a transgender person, composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed, made theatrical and musical magic within the span of ninety minutes. A first-tier string quartet, led by Gene Chang provided the instrumental portion. Matthew Worth, an impressive singing actor, played Hannah before her transition, and Amber Frasquelle, a superb mezzo-soprano, played Hannah after. The director, Robin Guarino handled the material sensitively and intelligently, helping to craft a straightforward and elegant production. Kudos to Evans Mirageas for going out on a limb and programming new work, proving that in Cincinnati there is an audience for contemporary opera.


In the Cincinnati Opera Traviata, Norah Amsellem, a stunning French soprano, would have made Verdi very happy. Her film star looks and her dramatic gifts made her utterly convincing as the high-class toast of tout Paris. Father and son were sung by tenor Ji-Min Park and baritone Youngjoo An, both artists overflowing with conviction in their assignments. A cast of young artists excelled in supporting roles under the firm directorial hand of Linda Brovsky, among them baritone Simon Barrad, who made his Marquis d’Obigny an important dramatic element in the elegant production designed by Desmond Heeley. In the pit, Renato Balsadonna helmed the orchestra with Italianate panache


The rapidly-rising, young cello virtuoso Coleman Itzkoff mined Elgar’s intimately personal score of the Cello Concerto with utmost intensity, yet never allowing his take on this music to wallow in sentimentality, that notwithstanding the profound sadness of Elgar’s musical meditation. Eckart Preu provided his ever top-notch leadership at the helm of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra which continues to surprise with its daring programming, its risk-taking in its choice of soloists, and its ever more cohesive sound.


The Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra gave the world premiere of Mexican composer Enrico Chapela’s Radioaxial. Massively scored, Chapela’s work alternates moments of aural density with occasional pockets of streamlined lyricism and crystal clarity. Chapela’s intriguingly inventive composition received an enthusiastic ovation from the sometimes staid Cincinnati audience. Now here’s hoping for more rep choices outside the Beethoven-Brahms- Schumann-Mozart box from the CSO.


The Art of Song is alive and well in Cincinnati. Daniel Weeks and Donna Loewy proved that to be true as they made musical magic happen on the stage of CCM’s Werner Recital Hall in a recital of songs in German, Spanish and English. The two artists did this not pull this off through sleight of hand but through musicality, technique and artistry. But what made this recital extra-special was the way in which it mercifully broke free of the tired and quite often dull formality of the concert platform and spiced up the evening with some inspired humor and theatricality.


The Immaculata Church in Mt. Adams opened its inaugural Chamber Music Series with string players Christina Nam, Holly Nelson, Kanako Shimasaki, Yu-Ting Huang, Hojoon Choi, and Jonathan Lee assembled into what we hope will be a permanent ensemble playing a concert that included a vigorously vibrant Octet by Mendelssohn. In a city rich in chamber music offerings, it is difficult for an ensemble of young players to establish an identity and make a mark. All the more remarkable then that this musically ad-hoc group that cries out for a name should begin its young journey so auspiciously.


CCM celebrated the fiftieth Anniversary of its impressively successful Musical Theatre program, led by Aubrey Berg, with a superb production of Frank Loesser’s GUYS AND DOLLS. Helmed by choreographer-director Diane Lala and musical director Roger Grodsky, the show blurred the dividing line between professional and college. A cast made up of Broadway hopefuls (who most likely will be working professionally in a matter of months) stopped the show time and again, leaving no doubt that this CCM program offers the top training for triple threats on their way to Broadway in the nation.


The youthful, robust, cohesive, disciplined, committed results that the CCM Concert Orchestra consistently delivers in a city chock full of musical surprises is a thing of wonder. In a concert that paid homage to Leonard Bernstein and several of his friends, the orchestra opened with the single-movement Sinfonia India, by Carlos Chavez, a Mexican ground-breaking composer who explored in his music the native sounds of Mexican folklore. Led by its young maestro, Aik Khai Pung, the orchestra gave an inspired reading of the 12-minute work, ending with a jarabe tapatio dance taken at warp speed that all but raised the roof of Corbett Auditorium.


The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra’s Summermusik lineup of four main-stage concerts, weekday evening pub crawls, and Sunday matinees, now in its third year under the leadership of Eckart Preu has become the best musical antidote to the dog days of summer in the Queen City, with its innovative themed programs and its featuring up and coming soloists in programs of new music in nifty pairings to warhorses from the bread-and-butter orchestral repertoire.


At the helm of the CCM Philharmonia, Mark Gibson’s work in Opera (Verdi’s Don Carlos…Strauss’ Salome…), in the symphonic repertoire, and in nearly all idioms and styles and periods is a force to be reckoned with: meticulous, impassioned, insightful, and revelatory. Beyond all that, he’s been on the podium and in the rehearsal studio for four decades, as a maestro to future maestros up ‘til now and, we hope for years to come.

Rafael de Acha