SPRING FORWARD

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DELOS has just released SPRING FORWARD, a CD of music for Clarinet and String Quartet made most unusual by the involvement of three different composers: Peter Schickele, Richard Danielpour, and Aaron Jay Kernis; three string quartets: the Miro Quartet, the Dover Quartet, and the Jasper Quartet, and one clarinetist: David Shifrin.

As for the treasure trove of music, first of all kudos to Peter Schikele who in his five movement suite, Spring Forward brings to life a bucolic Spring and Summer landscape injected with lighthearted humor – this from the irrepressible PDQ Bach, Schickele’s other self. But, as if in between the lines of a boy’s summer letter to his family, there is just a tinge of melancholy in the melodic turns of phrase in this lovely composition.

Richard Danielpour’s The Last Jew in Hamadan is a profoundly elegiac work redolent of the displacement felt by Iranian-born Jews who, like the composer himself, had to abandon the land of their birth. Its first movement is, as marked, agitated and urgent. The second movement depicts a coming of age and acceptance of the inevitable. Throughout we hear hints of Eastern melodic strains.

Perpetual Chaconne by Aaron Jay Kernis establishes a quiet dialogue between the solo clarinet of David Shiffrin and the accompanying Jasper String Quartet in what is neither harshly dissonant nor conventionally tonal. Straddling both these sonic worlds, the composition sustains our interest by subtle changes of tempo within the parameters of its 18th century-inspired Chaconne.

The Miro Quartet in Spring Forward, the Dover Quartet in The Last Jew in Hamadan, and the Jasper Quartet in Perpetual Chaconne and David Shifrin’s clarinet in all three compositions play gorgeously with all their hearts and minds as one.

Additionally involved in the project Phoenix Chamber Music Society, Yale School of Music, Chamber Music Northwest, and Backun Musical Services deserve credit for the superb production and engineering by Ben Taylor for Miro/Schickele, Rod Evenson for Dover/Danielpour, and Matthew Lefevre for Jasper/Kernis.

And to DELOS much gratitude for continuing to delight us by thinking outside the box.

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Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

Copland + Slatkin = magic!

By age 22 Aaron Copland had acquired a solid compositional technique as a student of Nadia Boulanger, just the kind of training which allowed him to write for full symphony orchestra and orchestrate like an old pro.

In 1922 Copland and his friend Harold Clurman went to see the film Nosferatu, an expressionist silent flick directed by the legendary German director Friedrich Murnau. When they returned to their student digs that night, the two young men decided to go to work on a ballet which they cheekily titled Le Necromancien to give their youthful project some kind of avant-garde French flavor.

They were writing on spec, as they say in show business, with no idea as to how they would get their youthful work on stage if ever. But Boulanger encouraged Copland to forge ahead, and he actually completed the work in 1925.

Years went by, and on and off the composer dilly-dallied with his youthful effort by retitling it, then removing it from his catalogue then putting it back.

Grohg? Never heard of it.

Grogh has been recorded and played in concert, but the stage for which it was meant has not surprisingly failed to welcome it. Given the physicality of the title character (a monstrous creature with ghastly features) and his proclivity to play fast and loose with dead bodies, no wonder the neglect.

The music is something else altogether. At times dissonant, with a bit of Stravinsky jaggedness, occasionally jazzy, now and then lyrical, it evidences the still-to-be-formed genius of the composer of Billy the Kid, which happens to be the second work included in this NAXOS CD, with Leonard Slatkin leading the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

By 1938 Copland had acquired firm footing as a composer to be watched. Back in America he reacquainted himself with Lincoln Kerstein, who in turn introduced Copland to the young choreographer Eugene Loring, commissioning the two young men to write a narrative ballet about the American outlaw William Henry McCarty, aka Billy, the Kid.

Premiered in Chicago and later given in New York and still later toured all over South America, Copland’s ballet put composer, choreographer and a young dancer named Jerome Robbins on the map.

As we all now, Billy, the Kid is pure Americana, and it signals the start of a new Copland, unfettered by any Europeanisms. Whether or not it was this work that caused Stravinsky to say that Copland was not a great American composer but a great composer is beside the point. Here is Copland at his magnificently American best.

Wide open harmonies underpinning lonely soli by muted trumpets and oboes… Melodies that rise up unannounced to linger and disappear and then return in a new guise… Fidgety rhythms that crisscross from the percussion section to the brass in the gun battle scene… Even a touch of the Latin American exoticism which years later he would use in Danzón cubano and in El Salón México is present in the Mexican Dance.

In this NAXOS release, the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, led by Leonard Slatkin gives a magical reading of both works. The strings play as one. The woodwinds and brass do gorgeous work throughout all ten sections of the 33 minute ballet, and the percussion section contributes mightily in as good a performance of this work as this listener has heard, no doubt made whole by the incisive leadership of Leonard Slatkin, one of America’s great maestros.

Rafael de Acha    http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

The Music of Brazil

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Pablo Rossi

Brazilian concert music is sadly underrepresented in the repertoire of symphony orchestras and chamber music ensembles outside South America’s vastest nation.

Vocal and chamber music connoisseurs might be familiar with the Bachianas Brasileiras of Heitor Villalobos, and those familiar with the richly melodic operas of Carlos Gomes will hopefully recall some of the highlights from O Guarany and Lo Schiavo recorded by Plácido Domingo, and Enrico Caruso before him. But the mention of Alberto Nepomuceno or Camargo Guarnieri will draw a blank look from most music lovers.

The Brazilian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has been developing the series Brasil em Concerto with the intention to promote music by Brazilian classical music composers, some dating back to the 18th century.

Over the next five years NAXOS plans to release a series of CD’s featuring orchestral works, chamber music and vocal music by Brazilian composers. The Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra, the Goiás Philharmonic Orchestra, and the São Paulo Symphony Orchestra are among the participating institutions.

In order to give this immensely important project the sendoff it deserves, the good people of Naxos jointly with the Brazilian Consulate of New York hosted an informal gathering on Thursday April 18th in one of Carnegie Hall’s more intimate spaces.

Words of welcome were spoken by Ambassador Enio Cordeiro, Consul General of Brazil in New York. Raymond Bisha, Senior Vice President of Marketing, Naxos of America & Canada spoke about The Music of Brazil.

A video presentation by Fabio Mechetti, conductor of the Minas Gerais Philharmonic Orchestra offered insightful information on the first CD release of Brasil em Concerto: the music of Alberto Nepomuceno (reviewed on this blog earlier this year).

The highlight of the morning was a piano recital by the superb Pablo Rossi. Winner of the first Nelson Freire National Competition for New Brazilian Talents, the young pianist played an all-Brazilian program that featured excerpts from Heitor Villalobos A prole do bebê, and several short pieces by Camargo Guarnieri, Henrique Oswald, and Alberto Nepomuceno.

We look forward to the next release on this much anticipated series.

Rafael de Acha     http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

LETTER FROM NEW YORK

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Were it not for the fact that a former voice student of my wife’s is starring in one of the leads, we would have given FROZEN a pass and gone in search of warmer theatrical climates outside the Disney world of princesses with frozen hearts and little hint of fire in their loins. But attend we did, and our friend Noah J. Ricketts, in a terrific triple-threat turn in the role of Kristoff made it all worthwhile, even the getting bathed in snow confetti at the end of the show.

There has been so much buzz about the opening of THE SHED, the new performing arts facility at the Hudson Yards that I talked myself and my long suffering Kimberly to shell out a couple of hundred dollars for tickets to something titled NORMA JEAN BAKER OF TROY.

Featuring the androgynous English stage actor Ben Wishaw, and the former Opera star Renee Fleming now starting a new career in Broadway musicals and cabaret, with English director Katie Mitchell staging a text that is neither poetry nor drama, with a score that mixes electronic sounds and digital and acoustic singing and banjo playing, and set on a dimly lit and monochromatic set, the ninety-minute, intermission-less exercise in pretentiousness left both of us along with much of the audience that remained after quite a few walkouts totally exhausted and bored.

After the chills of FROZEN and NORMA JEAN BAKER OF TROY we were owed an evening of good old Broadway heat. KISS ME KATE in the intimate Studio 54, home to the Roundabout Theatre Company delivered class, pizzazz, and enchantment by spades.

With the incomparable Kelly O’Hara in the part of operetta diva Lili Vanessi, and a hard-working supporting cast directed by Scott Ellis and choreographed by Warren Carlyle, this rethinking of Cole Porter’s original avoided the perils of reverentially reviving an old show, creating instead a thoroughly contemporary too darn hot two and one half hours of pleasure.

We had secured tickets for five nights of theater while in NYC, and promised ourselves not to overdo the theatergoing, leaving daytimes for other New York adventures. But at the last minute Kimberly surprised me with tickets for KING LEAR on the same day when we were seeing NANTUCKET SLEIGH RIDE at the Mitzy Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center.

We went to the John Guare play about an old playwright with regrets about life and playwriting after having brunch with a long term friend from our Boston days. The rambling, dense and slow moving comedy, (in spite of Jerry Zacks’ direction) seen sitting on uncomfortable seats made us regret not the brunch with our friend, but our choice of play for that afternoon.

That evening we went to the Cort Theatre to see Glenda Jackson as Lear in King Lear. From the moment the 82 year old actress entered the stage we knew we were in for a performance of a lifetime. I try never to read the reviews and often try not to listen to conflicting opinions before I see a play.

Afterwards, I have read objections to the directorial choices of Sam Gold, and yet maintain that I liked what we saw: a no-nonsense, straightforward take on a great play, not once marred by directorial eccentricities, with one of the great actresses of our time surrounded by a strong multi-ethnic cast and all the while belying the old theatrical saying that when you are old enough to play Lear you are too old to play Lear.

Our week of theatergoing in NYC climaxed on Sunday afternoon with Bryan Cranston turning out what Kimberly said was possibly the greatest performance she had ever seen by an actor. I would not hesitate to agree with her, saying that I cannot recall ever seeing in over sixty years of theatre-going a more riveting depiction of a human being literally imploding before our eyes.

Dutch director Ivo Van Hove has crafted a multi-media production of Lee Hall’s adaptation of Paddy Chayefsky’s film NETWORK that grabs one in the gut within the first five minutes and does not let go for one second of its two no-intermission hours.

Rafael de Acha    http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

KATHLEEN FERRIER: true contralto

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If contraltos grew on trees, Kathleen Ferrier would be the golden apple.

I meant contraltos, not mezzo-sopranos, who are often though not always halfway there sopranos. The true contralto, on the other hand, blossoms from the c below the treble staff to the c one octave above that and happily descends below that staff as deep as one octave below. Marian Anderson recorded that note at the end of Schubert’s Death and the Maiden.

But I digress.

While any Kathleen Ferrier previously released or unreleased would indeed be cause for celebration, in the case of the recently released SOMM CD titled Kathleen Ferrier In Celebration of Bach I found myself surfing from track 9, in which the late English contralto sings a glorious Esurientes to track 16 where she delivers a magnificent Ah tarry yet my dearest Saviour from the Ascension Oratorio to tracks 26 and 28 of the Cantata no. 67, in both of which she sings recitatives that lead to arias by the other singers involved.

All told, I could only celebrate two arias by Ferrier. In the Magnificat, recorded live in Germany in 1950 with coughing by audience members included, in the Ascension Oratorio and in the Cantata no. 67, there is generally poor singing from those surrounding Ferrier; even the young Irmgard Seefried delivers an unidiomatically labored Quia respexit in the Magnificat while the usually reliable Otto Edelman sounds more like a Baron Ochs than a Bach basso.

Disappointing to say the least.

Word to record producers: if you are announcing the release of another Kathleen Ferrier album please make sure to include her definitive Erbarme dich from the St. Matthew Passion. How about the Agnus Dei from the B Minor Mass?

Put those two in your playlist to begin with and spare us the filler second-tier German and English singers. And please find a title for your release that does not mislead us.

Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

EVANS MIRAGEAS LEADS THE CINCINNATI OPERA INTO A NEW CENTURY

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The Cincinnati Opera has been around since 1920, making it the second oldest opera company in America. The Queen City’s gem looks like it might be around for at least another century thanks to the visionary leadership of Evans Mirageas, its Artistic Director.

The company has held on to the simple formula of presenting a season of opera every June and July, of old in the Cincinnati Zoo and now in the newly-renovated Music Hall and, for chamber opera, the nearby School for the Performing Arts.

The gambit works. With most major opera companies lying low during the dog days of summer, the CO can pull off some terrific casting coups, share productions with other opera companies, and fill out a void in the Queen City when other music producing organizations shut down

Director Mirageas is unpredictably inventive. While there will always be a Puccini or a Verdi up his sleeves, he will also manage to mix it up with some off-the-beaten path offerings, which this summer include Richard Strauss’s Ariadne auf Naxos, and the world premiere of Blind Injustice by Scott Davenport Richards and David Cote.

He is serving that up from June 13 through July 28 with Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet, and The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess.

The 2020 Summer Festival of the Cincinnati Opera boasts the world premiere of Gregory Spears and Tracy K. Smith’s Castor and Patience. Also on tap: Rossini’s The Barber of Seville, starring the superb Isabel Leonard, with tenor Aaron Blake and baritone Rodion Pogossov in the cast.

There will be also be an Aida, Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka with British-Swiss soprano Kim-Lillian Strebel Fierce in the title role.

A yearlong program of Anniversary events begins in September 2019 with tenor Stephen Costello in concert, and a series of concerts by the In Harmony Community Chorus.

In April 2020, Cincinnati Opera will present the regional premiere of Bryce Dessner’s Triptych (Eyes of One on Another), a new work inspired by Dessner’s experience of growing up in Cincinnati during protests against an exhibit of the work of photographer Robert Mapplethorpe at the Contemporary Arts Center in 1990.

In conjunction with the meeting of the 2020 national Opera America board in Cincinnati, Cincinnati Opera will present Fierce Grace: Jeannette Rankin, a song cycle about the first woman elected to Congress, by composers Kitty Brazelton, Laura Kaminsky, Laura Karpman, and Ellen Reid, with text by Kimberly Reed.

In addition, Cincinnati Opera will present its usual lineup of community and education programming, including Opera Raps, the 30th annual Community Open Dress Rehearsal, The Opera Express mobile opera theater, the Inside Opera podcast series, performances through the UC Medical Center and Cincinnati Opera Voice Health Partnership, and the 15th annual Opera Goes to Church/Opera Goes to Temple concert series. Whew!

Rafael de Acha    http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

What Made Me Love Music: James Meade, guitarist

JAMES(7)What Made Me Love Music: James Meade, guitarist

My love for my instrument and my sharing of a time spent in love with it was nurtured by that feeling of waiting for something. It arrived but quite late.

Some of my earliest memories are filled with the sound of my great grandmother’s radio always dialed to bluegrass gospel. In my teenage years my consumption of music consisted of paying a couple of bucks and loading into an overcrowded car full of crass teens en route to a local show. For quite a long time music was all about communion with friends and family. But I remained an observer.

Throughout my childhood, the procuring of either an instrument or lessons was not an option despite my wishes. In the economic situation I was born into, a pencil and paper was the option for me. For that reason, my earliest artistic memories are of recreating and reinterpreting on paper images that were aesthetically pleasing to me.

I cannot remember a time when thinking about concepts such as proportion, shade, and texture was not a part of everyday life, even though, at that time such terms were not in my lexicon.

One day, at age 17 my mother greeted me with a guitar in the early evening. The instrument had a light sun burst finish, with strings high off the neck and a bowed top that sank towards the sound hole making it incredibly difficult to play. For me this was an experience of infatuation with the puzzle of sound. Despite its difficulty, my focus abruptly shifted from the visual to the aural. The majority of my time was spent huddled around this thing that warmed me.

As I got older I slowly came to identify the characteristics of addiction that are so ingrained in me. I’m thankful for the avenues gifted me for expressing this addiction, a much better option than a chemical one.

A quote by Thomas Merton recently made its way to me. Paraphrased it is: “Ourselves we clothe, we wrap in the bandages of other people’s perceptions of us or in our appetites and pleasures and we say: ‘Oh, those bandages, that is ourselves!’, without ever looking at what’s underneath the bandage, which is a hole in our heart the size of God.”

For me personally, that hole has always been filled with art and with communion around the expression of what it means to be human. It was this infatuation, obsession, and dependency on music that filled a hole created in me by a society that furtively stated that, since I had no money, my family and I were to blame for so much and that we were worth so little.

Of course, as an adult I can now articulate all of this, but then it was only an empty feeling. Art saved me from what society in its unwillingness to take responsibility for its own creations, told me about myself. It was through art that a child addicted to escaping inside himself was able to shape up into a better form of that self allowing him a self-perception like an honest mirror on which he could look.

This stream of forgetting and envisioning is where I began to dedicate hours after school until I felt confident enough to bring my instrument with me. But that was something that some teachers were not too enthusiastic about. I’m incredibly thankful to Ricky Wells and Jeanne Blankenship for their support. Eventually I was accepted into the guitar program at Eastern Kentucky University. There, Professor Davis had enough patience for a kid with no life skills but one obsessed with music. He guided me along and gave a new beginning, and for that I cannot thank him enough.

I’ve been allowed to bring my guitar to school ever since.

From that beginning music has given me the purpose I share with an incredible network of colleagues, friends, and enthusiasts who fill the void with so much that is wholesome, so that now there is never a moment when that hole that used to be there is not filled.

I’ve been a musician almost as long as the time I spent with those beautiful pencils and those forgiving erasers.

For all of this I’m thankful.

James Meade

TOSCA from Salzburg

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It’s not easy to give a melodramatic potboiler of an opera a credible and relevant contemporary retelling. Goodness knows that quite a few recent attempts at updating 19th century operas have had less than felicitous results.

Choosing to leave unmentioned the culprits I have in mind I will zero in on the new TOSCA production recorded in Salzburg last Easter Festival and now made available by UNITEL and Cmajor.

The news is not good as regards the staging by Michael Sturminger. The German director’s choices for this Tosca are generally illogical and capricious. The contemporary feel of the staging is largely limited to the surface trappings and does not extend as it should to the behavior of the actors embodying Puccini’s characters.

From the shootout that opens the opera even before the famously ominous Scarpia chords are sounded Sturminger fails to underpin the why and wherefore of the back story of Giacosa and Illica’s adaptation of Sardou’s play.

All told this Tosca sadly falls short of perfection by the miscasting of a key role and by an inexplicably weird ending: Scarpia stabs Tosca who lies on the floor seemingly lifeless…Tosca leaves… Just as she exits Scarpia crawls towards his desk in search of something…  Curtain down…Curtain up… New set…Scarpia’s henchmen are training teen age boys in the arts of violence… The boys and their teachers exit momentarily…Cavaradossi is brought in…He sings E lucevan le stelle…Tosca enters dressed in a Casablanca outfit… She and Cavaradossi sing their big duet…The young thugs-in-training reenter, armed with pistols… They shoot Cavaradossi… Scarpia enters, bloodied from Tosca’s knifing but still alive…Tosca draws out a handgun… She shoots Scarpia… Scarpia pulls out a handgun…He shoots Tosca dead… Curtain.

For once not coming off as a cipher, the role of Angelotti, as beautifully sung and acted by basso Andrea Mastroni stands out as an important character in the telling of the story. Matteo Peirone’s Sacristan is a real person, not a comic with a collection of shticks. Scarpia’s henchmen: Mikeldi Atxalandbasso and Rupert Grossinger are real thugs, not cardboard bad guys.

Then there are the principals, and right there is where a directorial concept can meet its Waterloo. First to enter is Cavaradossi. Latvian tenor Aleksandrs Antoņenko, a fine dramatic tenor in other roles is vocally and visually the wrong choice for the romantic tenor role par excellence. His handling of the lyrical, sweeping melodies Puccini allotted the role is blunt and rough-edged, with a ham-fisted approach to the abundant top notes in the score. And he is saddled with an awful costume obviously designed to disguise the tenor’s massive girth.

Too bad, for Anja Harteros deserves much better partnership. Her Tosca is beautiful to look at, elegant and statuesque, ostensibly a woman at the top of her game as female and actress. Her sound can occasionally turn slightly acidulous at the forte level yet she can spin out some beautiful pianissimi, notably in a beautifully sung Vissi d’arte. She is at her most effective in her scenes with Ludovic Tezier’s marvelous Scarpia in which she matches the French baritone punch by punch.

As the Roman Chief of Police, Tezier cuts an elegant figure, impeccably dressed, his white hair groomed to perfection, his manner suavely sinister in his first encounter with Tosca, neither evidencing the paunch under his tailored jacket nor the beast that lurks beneath the skin of his character. His sound is full, Italianate, and easy up and down the range. And, most important for this role, he is a subtle actor who mercifully spares us all the mannerisms and “bits” that have become part and parcel of this role’s baggage.

It will be interesting to see Harteros and Tezier paired off again in another opera with another tenor and another director. Here they are the principal saving graces in yet another ill-conceived directorial ego trip.

Rafael de Acha            http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com

CHABRIER’S CHAOTIC COMEDY OF CONFUSIONS

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Ouf the First, King of the Thirty-Six Realms is looking for an unsuspecting subject to execute, and just when he thinks he’s found his candidate, Siroco, the royal astrologer warns him that the stars have revealed that, once the sacrifice takes place, the monarch himself will die within 24 hours.

It’s all very complicated in Emmanuel Chabrier’s L’étoile, a chaotic comedy of confusions tempered by one of those impossible love affairs between the high-born and the humble, as Princess Laoula falls in love crowned-head-over-heels with poor Lazuli, an itinerant peddler of beauty products.

Instead of getting impaled or put to death in some horrid fashion, Lazuli gets wined and dined into a stupor until, satiated with the high life, he begs to be returned to the real world.

The King, eager to father an heir to the throne tries to woo Princess Laoula to no avail. A last-moment development occurs when Ouf, coming to his senses cries “ouf!” and all young lovers, wherever they are in his silly kingdom, are united in marriage.

Other than an occasional production of this opéra bouffe—a hybrid of spoken theatre and French comic opera—L’étoile has lingered on for more than a century in neglectful near-oblivion after its 1877 premiere in Offenbach’s intimate and still-operating Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens.

Thankfully NAXOS has issued a DVD of a live performance recorded at the Dutch National Theater in Amsterdam in 2014.

The cast boats a fine group of singing comic actors utterly comfortable in the style of this piece of fluff. Buffo Christopher Mortagne is a riot as King Ouf, and Stéphanie d’Oustrac shines in the dugazon role of Lazuli, along with soprano Helene Guilmétte a visual and vocal delight as Princess Laoula

Patrick Fournillier conducts with gallic élan and Laurent Pelly is the master or the scenic revels in this lovingly designed production with sets by Chantal Thomas and costumes by Pelly himself.

Rafael de Acha http://www.RafaelMusicNotes.com