First and upfront let me state this is not going to be a true review. It cannot be on because I cannot provide an objective evaluation of Simone Dinnerstein’s 2017 exquisite recording of two Mozart concerti with the Havana Lyceum Orchestra, led by its brilliant young maestro: José Antonio Méndez Padrón.

Were it not for the fact that I am Cuban by birth and Cuban to the core I could possibly turn out an adequate account of what I listened to. But the experience I am trying to describe is intense and not conducive to objectivity.

Hearing one of my favorite concert pianists in the company of some three dozen young and immensely talented Cuban musicians playing Mozart, unarguably my favorite composer, and further, hearing unpredictably fresh, elegant, impassioned performances of the Piano Concerto No. 21 in C major and the Piano Concerto No. 23 in A major perfectly produced by Tessa Fanelsa and edited, mixed and mastered by Adam Abeshouse, and recorded in Havana’s acoustically perfect 17th century Oratorio San Felipe Neri… well, it all sort of obliterated for the moment my critical acumen.

I know that after repeated listening I will get back on my critical seat and perhaps be able to shed some light on what I heard. What I think is more important than whatever my opinion might be is to get the word out about this recording and its implications about what is happening musically in my birth country.

This music making knows no political barriers. Mozart flawlessly played by an ensemble of young, multi-racial Cuban musicians in a tropical island 90 miles from our shores belies any preconceived misconceptions about Cuba and its culture.

For Simone Dinnerstein making this recording was, as her heartfelt notes so nicely express, among other things a way to reconnect spiritually with her earliest musical mentor: Solomon Mikowsky, a Cuban Jew of Polish descent. For me, listening to this recording has been an intensely emotional way to celebrate part of the culture with which I grew up.

Five years ago my wife and I visited Havana, me for the first time in fifty-seven years, she for the first time ever. While there we heard music played and sung everywhere: Pop music, Cuban jazz, Afro-Cuban music, Classical music. We long to go back once our government will make travel to Cuba legal.

Meanwhile we have a taste of music in Havana thanks to Mozart in Havana, for which a huge Muchas Gracias  goes from my Cuban heart to Sony Records and to Simone Dinnerstein.


Rafael de Acha


During the summer of 1789, Mozart, aged 33, composed his Clarinet Quintet essentially because he wanted to. There was no deadline, no commission, Le nozze di Figaro was behind him and a great success at that, and for the first time in quite a while he was financially stable. Mozart just wanted to write some music for longtime friend Anton Stadler, virtuoso of the then go-to basset clarinet – the grumpy-sounding first cousin to today’s clarinet, with its rumbling four notes below the bottom range of some of the clarinets that came after its time.

Then there was Brahms, who at age 57 felt he was done composing. Just ike Mozart he had no deadline or commission pressing him. His great instrumental works were completed. Success and a comfortable living he had finally achieved after years of hard compositional labor that had earned him the unalienable rights to a happy old age (57 of age was “old” in 1891) and the free and lively pursuit of a dolce far niente in his golden years.

But then Brahms goes to an all-Brahms concert of the sort back then when they mixed the chamber and symphonic repertoires on the same evening and he hears Richard Mühlfeld, principal clarinetist of the Meiningen Philharmonic play two tours de force for his instrument: Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet and Weber’s Clarinet Concerto.  Brahms decides right there and then to put retirement on hold and pen to paper and write not one but four works for his new musical idol, with whom he develops a long-distance musical friendship.

Among those works there’s the Quintet in B Minor for Clarinet and Strings, Opus 115, now recorded by the Alexander String Quartet with clarinetist Eli Eban on a CD that also features Mozart’s Quintet in A Major for Clarinet and Strings, K.581 being released by Foghorn Classics.

There are times – either times of day or times in which we live – when music can provide healing, induce calm, soothe our troubled hearts, allay our fears, and for a moment dispel our cares. As I sat late one night, and let this music so exquisitely played and shared with us by five formidable artists create its magic, time stopped and all that mattered in that moment was Mozart and Brahms and the Alexander String Quartet and Eli Eban.  

Let me let the insightful liner notes by Eric Bromberger provide all the musicological background needed to accompany this music and let my message of gratitude go to Foghorn Classics, to the Alexander String Quartet, and to clarinetist Eli Eban for providing the healing and soothing and calm this listener was in need of in the midst of the turmoil of this troubled year.

Rafael de Acha



In PORTRAIT OF AN ARTIST, a newly released MSR Classics CD, soprano Amy Johnson sings nine selections by eight composers. Ranging from Massenet and Wagner to a surprising sampling of 20th century operatic arias, they span the familiar: the Final Scene from Richard Strauss’ Salome, along with several revelatory excerpts from works by Stephen Schwartz, Anton Coppola, Thea Musgrave, and Robert Livingston Aldridge. There are also a scene from Káťa Kabanová by Leos Janáček, and Arabella’s Mein Elemer from Strauss’ Arabella.

Amy Johnson’s peripatetic career has spanned appearances in European and American Opera houses in a repertoire so wide-ranging that it defies any possible pigeonholing of this fine artist. On the evidence of this recording, Amy Johnson demonstrates her enormous versatility, a gift that allows her to handle both the lyrical, high lying lines of Myra in Stephen Schwartz’ Séance on a Wet Afternoon and the jagged utterances of Manuela in Thea Musgrave’s Simon Bolivar.

With an assured handling of the Spanish of Musgrave’s historical opera, to the Czech of Janáček, to the idiomatic French in her impeccably-vocalized Mirror aria from Massenet’s Thais, to the clearly articulated English of several of the selections, to the German of the selections by Wagner and Strauss, Johnson is at all times in complete command of the text.

Add to her language skills, and to what appears to be a limitless top voice that allows her to climax the Thais aria with a bell-like high D, a rock solid technique earmarked by complete flexibility, steadiness of vocal emission, and a keen instinct for never pushing past the sensible in intensity and volume, and you get a complete singing artist: one that can straddle the lush line of Massenet and the schizophrenic writing Strauss assigned to his bad girl soprano, Salome. And therefore we find cause for celebration.

Steven Mercurio superbly leads the MAV SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA with a gift for the give-and-take that accompanying an opera singer requires. Vernon Hartman contributed his sturdy baritone and his organizational skills to the production of this excellently engineered CD.


The American pianist Simone Dinnerstein has just completed an album recorded in the quiet of her living room, with producer and friend Adam Abeshouse in control of the controls, and Dinnerstein in control of the music-making: three Philip Glass Etudes and Schubert’s rapturous Sonata in B Flat Major, his last, completed in the final year of his all-too-brief life.

Thorough her playing of three of Philip Glass’s Etudes she reveals the seemingly simple beauty of these miniatures with utmost clarity, comfortably embracing the at times deceivingly static nature of these delicate gems. Her Schubert is deeply Romantic, affecting, portraying the music of an ailing young man holding on for dear life to life and trying to continue to make music. To be able to achieve this kind of emotional depth in the playing of a piece of music is awe-inspiring.

This recording reminds me of what I thought LOVE meant after I grew up and life happened: Dinnerstein playing is a loving act of music-making that reminds us all that music is a tool for healing troubled hearts.

Simone Dinnerstein has been keeping quiet. I get it. Many of us have been in desperate need of the sort of quietude that brings about contemplative reflection. But she has been missed. Her return to us is cause for celebration.

Rafael de Acha



At age 51 German tenor Jonas Kaufmann ought to be at the top of his game. By that I mean he should be singing better than ever before. He has survived the rigors of every Wagnerian Heldentenor role and has lived to tell. His repertoire encompasses tenor roles from the lyric to the heroic with mostly good results. His past vocal troubles have caused him to rethink his approach to singing, and on the evidence of his last forays here and abroad he appears to have surmounted them and sung on. But even the sturdiest of voices, even the most successful vocalists must at some point in their careers take stock, rethink, reassess how they want to continue and how long they will carry on.

Now Kaufmann is out with Selige Stunde a new SONY CD containing over two dozen Lieder by Schubert, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Liszt, Schumann, Strauss, Brahms… mostly the best known ones from the German 18th, 19th, and early 20th century songbooks. There are also a few rarities by Silcher, Carl Bohm, Zemlinsky…standards by Grieg, Dvořák, Tschaikovsky (sic) in German all of them. There’s even a stab at Mahler’s Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen – a song that ought to remain the sole property of mezzo-sopranos or at least singers of any gender with an uncanny gift for floating the voice. And if you don’t know what that means have a listen at any male or female Lieder singer of your choice delivering this extraordinary song.

In tackling this repertory, the usually reliable, often exciting Jonas Kaufmann comes up short. First and foremost, lesser voices have achieved success singing the intimate, narrative miniatures of Schubert, Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Strauss by virtue of the one and essential gift that Jonas Kauffman seems to lack on the evidence of this album: the ability to interpret and bring to life the drama inherent in the words of the poets set to music by these composers. There is but sameness in vocal color, intent and inflexion that track after track of 29 early on grows numbing. Pianist Helmut Deutsch is the stalwart companion through this musical journey.

And then there’s the vocalism itself. Kauffman appears to be tentative in his handling of his large operatic voice and uncertain as to how to approach the ever tricky passage from the middle to the high voice. At times the tenor applies full volume to phrases that should caress, not impress – an example being his handling of the climactic moments in Adelaide. At other times he arbitrarily slides into an easy croon rather than engaging a true mezza voce up and down from start to finish – an example being his Verschwiegene Liebe, Eichendorff’s rapturous elegy to silent love whose silence is broken by Kaufmann’s blunt approach.

The riches of the Lieder repertory should by no means be off-limits to stentorian voices like Kaufmann’s and there is plenty of evidence that other heroic voices have successfully sung and recorded this repertoire. Christa Ludwig comes to mind. Hans Hotter comes to mind. Jon Vickers comes to mind.

The riches of the Lieder repertory should by no means be off-limits to stentorian voices like Kaufmann’s and there is plenty of evidence that other heroic voices have successfully sung and recorded this repertoire. Christa Ludwig comes to mind. Hans Hotter comes to mind. Jon Vickers comes to mind. But 51-year old Kaufman should heed the old Spanish saying “Zapatero a tus zapatos” (“Cobbler stick to your shoes”) and leave this repertory alone.

Selige Stunde:

Rafael de Acha