WEST SIDE SORRY

When Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story opened on Broadway on September 26, 1957 he had already composed three Broadway shows: On the Town (1944), Wonderful Town (1953), and Candide (1956).

With the presence of a trio of zanies: Nancy Walker, Betty Comden, and Adolph Green, and George Abbott (director) and Jerome Robbins (choreographer) On the Town delivered theatrical magic by spades. So did Wonderful Town succeed, primarily thanks to the presence of Rosalind Russell as the comical Ruth.

Less than a year after the failure of Candide, West Side Story opened on Broadway. There was no formula being reapplied by Bernstein or by a creative team that included director-choreographer Jerome Robbins, book writer Arthur Laurents, and a new kid on the block, Stephen Sondheim as lyricist. The cast was made up of near-unknowns brimming with talent. The show opened to raves from Walter Kerr in the New York Times and a slew of Valentines from just about every critic from the printed press.

One would think that Bernstein would have left well enough alone after a splendid original cast recording was made with Carol Lawrence, Larry Kert and Chita Rivera in the leads. But the story of music is full of ill-conceived efforts.

Bernstein somehow believed that West Side Story could indeed be considered an opera. In what he and the recording’s producers hoped would be the definitive recording of the work, a cast of Opera stars was assembled to record the work in 1984. Bad idea!

Despite their uptown vocal pedigree or more likely because of the participating stars’ inability to capture the right way to deliver Bernstein’s score with the right mix of raw power and the appropriate sound for their roles, the combination of Kiri Te Kanawa as Maria, José Carreras as Tony, Tatiana Troyanos as Anita, Kurt Ollmann as Riff, and Marilyn Horne as the offstage voice who sings “Somewhere” proved to be deadly.

The recording sessions readily available for listening on You Tube, were by and large a disheartening affair, with an impatient, hand-wringing, chain-smoking Bernstein dealing sarcastic quips and snarky comments to many of the participants in the sessions, most of all Carreras, who Bernstein managed to tie into knots with his very own brand of unwarranted sarcasm. Strangely, it is the Spanish tenor who consistently delivers the most beautiful sound in the entire cast.

Kiri Te Kanawa’s full-throated, lyric-spinto sound is better suited to Strauss and Verdi heroines than to the part of a Juliet-like Puerto Rican teenager. Worst of the lot Tatiana Troyanos as Anita comes off as an overbearing termagant sporting a cringe-inducing Puerto Rican accent. Kurt Ollmann as Riff is a non-entity. Even Marilyn Horne’s Somewhere does not begin to obliterate memories of the angelic sound of Reri Grist in the original cast recording.

The road to musical theatre hell is paved with the ego-driven intentions of many in the recording industry. The 1984 recording of West Side Story is one such journey.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Not silver bullet solutions but ideas for the survival of the arts

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Towards the end of February and nearly a year after the pandemic radically changed the way we live, work, go to school, and socialize we went over the half-million deaths mark in our country. Some sources estimate that it will not be until 2022 that we will begin to see substantial changes in the way we conduct out lives. For those of us who live and breathe the arts in all forms: visual, performing, live, recorded, be it as practitioners or as audience members, the facts of life we now face are sobering at best, frightening at their worst.

Questions persist. Will we again be able to go to a movie with friends and sit in a darkened room with countless others watching a great film on a large screen? Or will we be indefinitely limited to sit in our living rooms watching our favorite flicks on small screens and listening to the dialogue through small speakers?

Will we again be able to go to a concert hall to watch and listen to four big-voiced soloists and a huge chorus blow us away with a performance of Beethoven’s Ninth? Or will we have to content ourselves with listening to a CD of (fill in the name of your go-to orchestra and conductor) as we sit on our favorite recliner?

Will we again be able to thrill to the sound of Verdi’s Aida sung by a big-voiced soprano surrounded by a cast of hundreds (including elephants) or will we have to settle for listening again to the great Leontyne Price recording? Nobody knows the answer to that and other similar questions about concerts and operas and movies and ballets and art exhibits.

But it is fair to ask of our arts institutions the burning question: what are they planning to do to preserve the art forms they cultivate and promote from disappearing?

Reinvention is called for. Fleet-footed flexibility is in order. And imagination is most needed now. In the midst of this catastrophic state of affairs the nimble and agile will live to tell. New sources of income will have to be found. Streaming of performances will take the place of live ones. Outdoor spaces during the late Spring and Summer and early Fall can be put at the service of our arts organizations, even if it means a seven-month April to October Opera or theatre season in which fewer productions are given in a European-style “seasonal” format rather than in the American repertory one, thus reducing the staggering costs of mounting many productions every season.

The reliable subscription audience will gradually have to make room for the one-off attendee. Ticket prices will have to be lowered to accommodate the many who cannot afford to pay the exorbitant prices that a ticket to the Opera or a Broadway show now cost. Perhaps three repeats of the same concert program times the number of concert programs per season will begin to equal the same number of services for the musicians in an orchestra.

The unions will have to come to the negotiating table with management and find ways to help their constituencies survive the exigencies of the times in which we live and work for a common goal good to artists and managements and audiences.

These are not silver bullet solutions but ideas- some maybe good, some perhaps not – that will hopefully begin to pave the way forward for the arts to  flourish and not perish in 21st century America. Or so we hope.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

A recitalist of whom to take notice

In an introduction to her enchanting song recital program on ALPHA, Belgian soprano Jodie Devos writes: ‘…This programme reflects a personal journey: I am Belgian, I studied at the Royal Academy of Music in London, and now I live in France. I wanted to present composers from these three countries, taking as my cornerstone the English song repertory and the English language. “

Beautifully accompanied by Nicholas Krüger, the Belgian soprano sings her way through a brace of relatively well-known gems by Frank Bridge, Roger Quilter, and Benjamin Britten, along with rarities by Darius Milhaud, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Irene Poldowski, William Walton, Ivor Gurney, Germaine Tailleferre and others.

Jodie Devos’ lyric-coloratura soprano voice serves this high-lying music to perfection, with utmost ease in the upper range, impeccable legato, and flawless diction in both the English and French selections. In addition, her musicality and taste define her as a recitalist of whom to take notice.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Celebrating Piazzolla on Azica Records

Due to its location in the lower region of the Southern hemisphere the seasons in Argentina come at the exact opposite from ours, so that their summer is our winter and our winter their summer.

Whether this inverse order of the weather might have anything to do with the emotionally charged music of Astor Piazzolla’s Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas one can only guess, but, as one listens to the Invierno Porteño section of this wondrous work, the listener is carried away by the rapturous central melody of the anything but chilly Argentine winter soulfully played by the Neave Trio as if violinist Anna Williams, cellist Mikhail Veselov, and pianist Eri Nakamura had all-three been born on the shores of Buenos Aires’ River Platte

The music of Piazzolla has deservedly had much recognition and play, and his Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas has been played by everybody from Yo-Yo-Ma on the cello to any number of pianists, violinists, and instrumental ensembles.

Yet, any artists who bring something new to this music are to be welcomed with open arms. Such is the case with the estimable Neave Trio, that in the 2018 release of Celebrating Piazzolla on Azica Records featuring new arrangements of Las Cuatro Estaciones Porteñas and of several intriguing songs of Piazzolla idiomatically sung by mezzo-soprano Carla Jablonski. Their music-making make this wonderful album absolutely indispensable.

For more information, visit www.neavetrio.com.

Rafael de Acha                       ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

TWO NEW CD RELEASES FOR MARCH

Newly arrived from SOMM we welcome a wonderful album that features British pianist Peter Donohoe playing five works for the keyboard in Mozart: Piano Sonatas, Volume 4.

This new gem from this artist’s ongoing survey of the Salzburg master’s piano works includes the Sonata No.1 in C major, K279; the Sonata No.5 in G major, K283; the Minuet in D major, K355; the Allegro in G minor, K312, and the Sonata No.12 in F major, K332.

Recorded in 2018 at the Royal Conservatory in Birmingham on a Bechstein D282 grand with Paul Arden-Taylor peerlessly engineering the session, the new CD, insightfully annotated by Christopher Morley and just now being released is a special gift to aficionados of piano playing in the grand manner by a master of the keyboard.

In The Great Violins Volume 4 the music of the lesser known 17th century Austrian violinist and composer Johann Joseph Vilsmaÿr is heard in the CD The Great Violins, Vol. 4.

Playing a 1629 Amati violinist Peter Sheppard Skaerved guides the listener on a musical journey through six partitas for solo violin titled as a collection Artificiosus Concentus pro Camera. The unique sound of the Amati is perfectly captured in the athene recording which includes exhaustive information on the composer and his works.

Rafael de Acha    ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Alceste

Due to the restrictions Gluck imposed on his own work in a 1779 preface to the published score of Alceste, he paved the way for Opera to transition from the Baroque operas of his predecessors to the achievements of Mozart.

In his famous preface Gluck stipulated among several do’s and don’ts, no vocal embellishments, exclusively syllabic setting of the text, blurring the difference between aria and accompanied recitative, and no textual repeats.

Ironically, Mozart effected a major transition from the excesses of Baroque Opera while still putting to work many of the devices Gluck had fought against, including repeats, vocal embellishments, and separation of secco recitatives from arias and ensembles.

In Alceste Gluck took Calzabigi’s libretto based on Alkestis, a tragedy by Euripides about a Queen willing to give her life to save her husband’s, and wrought a stage work long in longueurs and short on truly inspired music. Other than the title character’s aria Divinités du Styx, one is hard put to think of another truly memorable moment in this 135 minute-long, three-act opera.

In the UNITEL/Cmajor CD, Dorothea Roschmann undertakes the title role with mixed results. The German soprano, a notable Lieder singer and recognized interpreter of light-lyric roles on which she has built an international career, here tries on for size the role of the tragic Queen of Thessaly.

The role of Alceste, long associated with large-voiced dramatic sopranos the likes of Maria Callas, Kirsten Flagstad, Eileen Farrell, Leyla Gencer, and, more recently, Jessye Norman, and Christine Brewer taxes the voice of Roschmann, now an older singer in her mid-fifties and well past the prime of a light-voiced soprano.

The role of King Admète is relegated by Gluck into a supporting one that does not appear until act two. Once he does show up, the American tenor Charles Castronuovo does a fine job with what little Gluck gives him to work with.

The Regieoper production by Antwerp-based choreographer Sidi Larki Cherkaoui comes off as portentously pretentious, with dance sequences that sport a largely-derivative kinetic vocabulary redolent of the work of fellow Belgian Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, along with sequences replete with much arm wiggling and meaningless still poses.

Ultimately the entire proceedings comes off as endlessly repetitive and unable to contribute anything to the driving forward of the story, notwithstanding the fine conducting of Antonello Manacorda at the helm of the Bayerisches Staatsorchester.

The Bayerische Staatsoper 2019 production of the 1776 Paris (French language) version of Gluck’s Alceste is now available as a single CD.

Rafael de Acha All About the Arts

A musical message from Japan

Toshio Hosokawa is a composer of contemporary classical music whose aesthetic is informed by classical Japanese culture. Momo Kodama is a classical pianist with a commitment to divulge works by contemporary Japanese composers. Seiji Ozawa is known for his advocacy of modern composers and for his work with the Boston Symphony Orchestra which he led for 29 years. These three artists came together in 2006 to record two works of great significance to all three of them: W.A. Mozart’s Concerto for Piano and Orchestra in A Major, No. 23, and Toshio Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight.

Leading his own Mito Chamber Orchestra, the Japanese maestro gave the world premiere of Toshio Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight, a one-movement concerto with Momo Kodama as soloist. The German label ECM has recently announced the re-release of the 14-year old recording, straightforwardly engineered by Yoshinori Yishiwaki and Suenori Fukui in an ECM recording soon to be available on various platforms.

Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight is an intriguingly compelling work whose harmonic and melodic traits reveal both European and Japanese roots. At all times Hosokawa’s exquisite composition is ineffably Eastern in its economy of means, noble in its intentions, and rich in its depiction of the birth and life of a lotus flower that rises out of the water to embrace the moonlight and the universe beyond.

Momo Kodama is the soloist in both Hosokawa’s Lotus under the Moonlight and in Mozart’s beloved A Major, K. 488 concerto.

The Allegro that opens the 1786 composition reflects Mozart’s state of mind at the time: he was a happy man, piano soloist in this and two other concertos, his Le Nozze di Figaro was about to open in Prague. But then a doleful F# minor middle movement follows as a revelation of the spiritual conflict that ever lived in Mozart’s soul. Then a third movement Allegro  (Italian for both lively and happy) is both lively in speed and happy in spirit, episodic in nature, calling for elegance and suppleness of execution, all of which the protean Momo Kodama joyfully delivers with the beloved maestro Ozawa as an elegant partner at the helm of the sterling Mito Chamber Orchestra.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

RISURREZIONE – a resurrection of a neglected gem

In a perfect world Franco Alfano’s RISURREZIONE would be resurrected by opera companies with more frequency. But the world of Opera being as imperfect as we all know it and its repertory can be, we luckily have a DYNAMIC video recording of a January 2020 production by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino at our disposal any time we want to hear and see this opera. For one, I plan to do that again so as to enjoy the many beauties this recording offers.

First things first: Franco Alfano, is best known for having completed Turandot in 1924, after Puccini had died two years earlier. Even though he was much more prolific than many of his peers Alfano’s operas, including Risurrezione, fell into obscurity after his death in 1954. Now, more than sixty years later, Ireland’s Wexford Festival gave Alfano’s work a worthy production which was later shared this year by the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino.

Alfano’s music for Risurrezione is unabashedly Romantic, lushly orchestrated, and singer-friendly. The Florence production does not stint in the vocal department, having as its two leads the French soprano Anne Sophie Duprels and the American tenor Matthew Vickers.

Duprels is a petite, big-voiced lady with enormous gifts as a singer and as an actress. As Katerina Mihailova (Katyusha) she is at first fragile and pretty as a young servant in an aristocratic household. The French soprano’s dramatic progression from youthful innocence to homeless pregnant unmarried woman to half-crazed inmate in the company of criminals and prostitutes in a woman’s jail to a lifer in a Siberian camp for men and women, where she ministers to the needy among her fellow prisoners, is simply extraordinary.

Beyond her acting ability Anne Sophie Duprels can sing. Oh and how she can sing well and sing on!  Alfano’s score is through-composed, which means no stops and starts. Most of the music for the soprano is emotionally-charged, with a good number of show-stopping moments that do not allow for anything to stop.  The opera’s first act is structured as a long duet for the soprano and the tenor, once the comprimario singers leave. Ditto for a second act which is essentially a soprano solo with a few brief interjections by more supporting-role singers, The third act is a tour de force for the soprano, whose character’s mind and life are unraveling into madness. By the fourth act, Katyusha achieves a state of spiritual enlightenment in which she makes peace with those who wronged her, embracing a sad and uncertain future as her lot in life. Throughout Duprels is non pareil, delivering extraordinary singing and acting

In order to accomplish this dramatic feat Duprels has Rosetta Cucchi, a wonderful director to guide her trough these challenges. And, importantly, she has the excellent tenor Matthew Vickers as a perfect acting and singing partner. With hardly a moment in which he is not partnering Duprels in extended duets, Vickers still shines vocally with a lovely lyric voice that can deliver heft when heft is needed. And he is an honest actor, utterly convincing as Prince Dimitri Ivanovich Nehlyudov.

The production is sterling, with a poetic set by Tiziano Santi, period-perfect costumes by Claudia Pernigotti, and chiaroscuro lighting by  Ginevra Lombardo. Rosetta Cucchi masterfully moves around her principals and cast never allowing for operatic posturing to take the place of life-like behavior, and she creates with the help of her designers some truly stunning stage pictures.

Other than the excellent baritone Leon Kim, who impresses in a brief appearance as a fellow prisoner in the final act, the remainder of the cast has small roles to fill. They and the chorus and orchestra of the Maggio Musicale Fiorentino under the world class direction of maestro Francesco  Lanzillotta and chorus master Lorenzo Fratini would do any opera company proud.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Violeta Vicci’s Mirror Images

Gramola’s upcoming release Mirror Images [GRAM98010] features works for solo violin and viola and one intriguingly Eastern-inflected cantilena for solo voice performed by violinist Violeta Vicci.

The album includes Ragnar Söderlind’s Elegia II for Solo Violin; J.S. Bach’s Partita in E Major for Solo Violin and the Sarabande from J. S. Bach Suite No. 5 in C Minor; Imogen Holst’s Suite for Solo Viola, Eugène Ysaÿe’s Sonata in A Minor Op. 27, No. 2 “A Jacques Thibaud” and a Vocalise by Jean-Louis Florentz.

Violeta Vicci’s accomplishments are both those of a violinist/violist gifted as a fine interpreter of traditional and new music and as an improvisational artist with a penchant for the intricacies of quarter-tone music.

Vicci’s playing of Ragnar Söderlind’s Elegia II for Solo Violin is impressive. She excels in both J.S. Bach’s Partita in E Major for Solo Violin and the Sarabande from the Suite No. 5 in C Minor, and in both instances her playing is idiomatically apt, clean of execution, and eloquently rendered.

Such is also the case with the young artist’s felicitous playing of Eugène Ysaÿe’s four-movement Sonata in A Minor Op. 27, No. 2 – dedicated to another great violinist, Jacques Thibaud – whose Late Romantic idiom Vicci embraces with lyrical purity of tone and expansiveness.

Imogen Holst’s bucolic Suite for Solo Viola is deftly taken up by Vicci who mines the capabilities of her second instrument potential for mimicking the sound of an English country fiddle.

Mirror Images was produced at Space Mountain Studios in Spain, with recording, editing, mixing and mastering by Jon Alexander Audio. 

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

An American Mosaic

Throughout fifteen short pieces variously titled as arias, chorales, interludes, and other more poetic names, givers and receivers, patients and doctors, ministers, rabbis, writers and poets, teachers and students, the healthy and the sick, the living and the millions who succumbed, are given hope and homage, celebrated and or commemorated for their deeds, for their notable or obscure but never negligible lives, and for merely having existed and survived and helped or for having valiantly fought but perished.

Simone Dinnerstein, both a notable pianist and pioneer of music as a vehicle for healing of the mind and the spirit, gives Richard Danielpour’s delicate, economical of means, elegantly tonal, plainly harmonized, sometimes restless, most often tranquil music a noble, straightforward, sensitive reading that renders this treasure of an album essentially important to those who love meaningful music that matters.

The Supertrain Records album to be released in mid-March also includes as a movingly fitting finale three transcriptions created by Richard Danielpour for Simone Dinnerstein of Bach’s Agnus Dei (Lamb of God) and the chorale Wenn Ich einmal soll scheiden (When someday I shall depart), both from the Mass in B minor, and the final chorus Wir setzen, uns mit Tränen nieder (Tearfully we sit) from Bach’s St. Matthew Passion.

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS