RAMEAU LITE

In the NAXOS DVD of the 2020 Opera Comique production of Jean-Philippe Rameau’s tragedie-lyrique Hyppolite et Aricie the staging is at odds with the often sublimely beautiful music of the enlightened French Enlightenment 18th century composer.

Rameau’s music is all balance of thought and feeling, aesthetic symmetry, elegant restraint, and concealment of artfulness all for the sake of artistry, and in this production, Raphael Pichon’s leadership of the Pygmalion orchestra and chorus is, all well and good, superbly idiomatic.  

In contradictory and confusing contrast, the staging of Jeanne Candel and Lionel Gonzalez, and the sets by Lisa Navarro and costumes by Pauline Kieffer are all about European Regietheater in which more is less. That is too bad, because a superb French cast of Baroque specialists does great justice to Rameau’s music as it works against the untidy stage direction, the come-as you-are costumes, and the just plain silly scenery.

For those not up on Greek mythology, the story is about the love between Hyppolite (the escellent tenor, Reinoud von Mechelen) and Aricie (the lovely and very pregnant soprano Elsa Benoit) – a passion which ultimately either unconsummated or merely preserved for all eternity in a magical garden of delights (paradise?) well out of the reach of Hyppolite’s vengeful father, King Theseus (the superb baritone Stephane Dregout) and Phedre, Hyppolite’s lustful stepmother (the fine mezzo-soprano Sylvie Brunet-Grupposo).

While deities and demons and worshippers and priestesses at the Temple of the goddess Dianne do their divine or devilish or mortal best and worst to derail the inevitable triumph of love over all obstacles earthly and otherwise, though all to no avail, the soloists sing up storm against the adverse tide of Fate.

I do not advocate for bringing back the sort of reverentially stodgy productions that many of us endured in our salad days, when the MET and other American opera companies and music conservatories first began to explore the yet-to-be-discovered riches of the 17th and 18th century lyric stage.

And yet I would much rather prefer not to watch stagings of Rameau and Lully and Handel and Monteverdi in which the proliferation of post-modern theatrical clichés overwhelms the music and trips up the singers.

Therefore and in the meantime and while a happy marriage of good music-making and reasonably intelligent staging is arrived at, I will content myself with listening to the music.

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Good wishes


In little over three weeks we will be ready to bid farewell and good riddance to this difficult year, one during which the bad more than often than not seemed to outweigh the good.

But 2021 was also a year in which the resilience of the arts and the artists who create them filled us all with hope. In America, Broadway and off-Broadway and some of the regional theatre have begun to open up cautiously.  One step at a time symphony orchestras and opera companies and concert series and performing arts conservatories and pop and jazz and rock and all kinds of music enterprises are starting to operate again. Musicians and performers of all kinds are beginning to return to work after being furloughed or laid off or put on hiatus for close to two years. These are all hopeful signs.

I have kept busy reviewing recordings and live performances and writing about the arts for this blog, and that has kept me creative and productive all these years even through the worst of the pandemic.

Life has been and continues to be quite good and rewarding for me and for my loved ones, and I never cease to count our blessings.

I am taking this opportunity to reach out to each and every one of you: my readers near and far. I have appreciated your reading my posts and loved listening to the music I review and making your acquaintance even if separated by time and distance.

Let this post – possibly my last one for the year 2021 – carry to each and every one of you and yours all over the world my heartfelt good wishes.

Rafael de Acha ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Alexandre Kantorow plays Brahms

“In 2019, when Alexandre Kantorow, at the age of 22, became the first French pianist to win the Gold Medal at the Tchaikovsky competition, his program included no less than three works by Johannes Brahms.”

“Two of these, Piano Sonata No. 2 and the Rhapsody in B minor, he went on to record for release on his previous, highly praised recital disc, which was awarded distinctions such as Gramophone’s Editor’s Choice, Diapason d’Or, and Choc de Classica.”

“The Brahms interpretations won Kantorow particular praise – the Guardian (UK) described them as ‘magisterial’ while the website ResMusica placed his sonata ‘among the great reference recordings of the piece – if not the modern one.’ “

“There is much to look forward to, then, when Kantorow releases an all-Brahms album with a playing time of no less than 85 minutes. He opens with music by a composer of a similar age as himself: Brahms wrote the Four Ballades in 1854 while only 21 years old, taking up a fashionable genre introduced by Chopin as late as 1840.”

“The set is followed by the even earlier Sonata No. 3 in E minor which forms the center of the program. The sonata is of almost symphonic dimensions and it was indeed, along with its predecessors, famously described as a disguised symphony by no one less than Robert Schumann.”

“To bring this stormy, impassioned album to a close, Kantorow has chosen a later, and contrasting work: With a lifelong admiration for Bach, Brahms in 1879 made a piano arrangement, for the left hand alone, of the iconic Chaconne from Partita No. 2 for solo violin – a composition that Brahms himself described as ‘a whole world of the deepest thoughts and most powerful impressions’.”

Re-posted from the text accompanying the annoucement of the release of the Kantorow CD.

OUR FAVORITE CONCERTS OF 2021

OUR FAVORITE CONCERTS OF 2021

In Cincinnati several musical organizations cautiously began live performances. We were not able to catch the return of the Cincinnati Opera or that of the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra, both coming back to live performances in temporary outdoor venues in the summer. As the fall set in and indoor performances began, we caught these favorites:

Matinee Musicale came back

After a year long hiatus, the 108-year young Matinee Musicale opened their 2021-2022 season with WindSync, a wind quintet whose five members played authoritatively, elegantly, with adroit technique, and with great fun.

Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra up close and personal

In his auspicious debut with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra Roderick Cox arrived largely unknown to a Cincinnati audience still in the midst of pandemic restrictions. Within a few moments after the start of the concert it was clear that we were in the presence of a fully matured and impressive maestro.

In the same concert Conrad Tao took on Ravel’s Piano Concerto and brought out both its lyrical and its zany aspects, conquering all of its technical hurdles in a performance that brought the audience to its feet. Tao returned for an encore: Sunday, from Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George in a moving performance.

Back to School

In September Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music began its line-up of performances for 2021-2022 with a concert by the Philharmonia Orchestra, led by Mark Gibson, who paced the eighty-plus young musicians in an impassioned performance of Mahler’ First Symphony that reminded the listeners in Corbett Auditorium of what treasures this orchestra and their conductor are.

In November, at CCM, a production of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was blessed with imaginative stage direction by Robin Guarino, an elegantly chameleonic set by Tom Umfrid, pretty costumes by CCM design student Meredith Buckley, the conducting of the gifted young student Brian McCann – a last minute replacement to lead the very nice student orchestra, and in the role of Susanna, Emma Marhefka, a young soprano we will be hearing about in the very near future.

Modern Dance is back

Starting a new season in their very own space – a flexible black box in which the audience sits just a few feet from the performers, Mutual Dance Theatre – an artistic marriage of the Jefferson James Contemporary Dance Theatre and MamLuft&Co.Dance – delivered an exciting evening of dance in November.

Rafael de Acha     ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

The good and bad librettos of contemporary operas

Zachary Woolfe’s NY Times review of the MET’s production of Matthew Aucoine’s Eurydice ends with a little preview of things to come: “Brett Dean and Matthew Jocelyn’s eerie 2017 adaptation of “Hamlet” arrives in the spring. Premieres by Kevin Puts, Missy Mazzoli, Mason Bates, Jeanine Tesori and others are on the horizon, as are overlooked works of the past few decades, like Anthony Davis’s X: The Life andTimes of Malcolm X.

I hold some hope for the operas Zachary Woolfe speaks of other than Hamlet by Brett Dean, a poor version of the original minus most of Shakespeare’s text.

I fervently hope that none of them will turn out to be be as irrelevant to my life as Aucoine’s Eurydice or some of the contemporary operas the MET has been trotting out over the past several years.

I passionately embrace the music of much contemporary Opera, whereas I am often sent into a stupor by many of their libretti, both by their lame dramaturgy and by subject matters that hold no interest for me as a Latin man living in 2001 America.

The recent MET producion of Fire Shut up in my Bones with words and music by Terence Blanchard resonated for many of us – Black or White, Straigt or Gay – with its story about growing up Black and Gay in 20th century America. On the other hand, a modern dress reworking of the Orpheus myth won’t say anything that Monteverdi and Striggio or Gluck and Calzabigi already said much better.

Here in Cincinnati our Cincinnati Opera has been developing works that have gradually enriched the repertory of Opera companies across the United States.

Coming up this season the Cincinnati Opera is bringing two world premieres: William Menefield‘s Fierce with a libretto by Sheila Williams, and Castor and Patience with music by Gregory Spears and a libretto by Tracy K. Smith. Both these works deal with the Black experience. Both will surely speak to a multi-racial audience in our ethnically diverse Cincinnati.

Farther afield, the MET is not only developing new artistic projects but also planning to take some of them outside its 3,800 seat behemoth of a house and collaborate with other producing and presenting organizations, among them Lincoln Center – with its plethora of smaller spaces – and the New York Public Theatre, all in an effort to find the right kind of spaces for chamber operas that would get lost in the opera house.

Blue, an opera with music by Jeanine Tesori and a libretto by Tazewell Thompson takes place in Harlem, where a couple celebrates the birth of their firstborn child. Tragedy  strikes the family years later, when the son is killed by a white officer.

Tesori is also working on an operatic adaptation of George Brant’s Grounded, about a female fighter pilot reduced to operating drones during her pregnancy.

Missy Mazzoli’s opera Lincoln in the Bardo based on the George Saunders novel of the same title and set in set in an intermediate space between life and rebirth deals with the president’s grief at the loss of his son, Willie.

Both Tesori and Mazzoli will become the first American female composers with works to be produced by the MET in over one century.

The Hours, a new opera jointly commissioned by the MET and the Philadelphia Orchestra, with music by Kevin Puts and a libretto adapted from Michael Cunningham’s novel of the same title tells the story of three women whose personal and working lives interconnect.

Mason Bates’ The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, an operatic version of Michael Chabon’s novel about two Jewish cousins before, during and after World War II is also being planned.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS    

Stewart Goodyear – an extraordinary pianist

Every time I hear Stewart Goodyear play I am reminded of what an extraordinary pianist he is. That just happened when I received a copy of his CD Phoenix from the enterprising label Bright Shiny Things.

Flawlesly engineered, mixed, and mastered by Daniel Shores, elegantly produced by Dan Mercurio and Louis Levitt, and nicely packaged and designed by Marian C. Holmes and Julia-Buz, the CD was recorded back in February of this year and just released. It features an intriguing selection of contemporary music by Jennifer Higdon, Anthony Davis, and Stewart Goodyear himself.

Accompanying the new music is Debussy’s La cathedrale engloutie and L’isle joyeuse, in addition to Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition.

First things first: the music. Anthony Davis’ compelling Middle Passage forcefully depicts in dissonant and often violently dramatic music the trans-Atlantic slave trade in which millions of enslaved Africans were transported to North America, the Caribbean, Central, and South America in subhuman conditions. It is harrowing music that tells a disturbing story and literally grabs the listener and won’t let go.

Goodyear gives Middle Passage an energetically played reading, as he does his own Caribbean-inflected Congotay, a joyous incorporation of Trinidadian Soca rhythms into a classically-grounded pianistic technique.

Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens takes its title and gives it musical meaning in music both mysterious and crystalline that avails itself of an expansive vocabulary of massive chords, glissandi, arpeggios, and subtle snippets of melody while avoiding a firmly central tonality.

As with Jennifer Higdon’s Secret and Glass Gardens, Stewart Goodyear capitalizes on the delicate aspects of Debussy’s quintessentially Gallic music: nobly serious in La cathedrale engloutie with those bottomless chords, and riotously happy in L’isle joyeuse.

The longest piece in Goodyear’s CD is Modeste Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. A suite made up of an introduction which comes back several times in between its ten episodes, the 1874 composition for piano by the 35 year old composer fares far better with this listener than the all-too-much Ravel arrangement for orchestra. Here, in its original form, Goodyear takes judicious tempi much closer to Mussorgsky’s originally intended ones, bringing out the clarity of the work and the humor inherent in many of the sardonically descriptive episodes: Bydio, Ballet of Un-hatched Chicks, The Hut on Hen’s Legs, and the majesty in The Old Castle and The Great Gate of Kiev.

Stewart Goodyear closes the CD with a work titled Panorama – a work so Cuban-sounding that even this Havana-born listener was fooled into thinking it was the music of my compatriots Alejandro Garcia-Caturla or that of Amadeo Roldan I was hearing.

Thank you for the memories and thank you for all the good music!

Rafael de Acha                  ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

2021 – THE GOOD AND THE BAD

Soon we will be ready to bid farewell and good riddance to a difficult year, one during which the not so good more than often seemed to outweigh the worthwhile. It was also a year in which the resilience of the arts and the artists who create them filled us all with hope. Here then, in random order that avoids chronology is my list of highlights good and bad, happy and sad, of the year soon to be the year that was.

  • The fall of 2021 saw the return of live performances. It was a cautious one-step-at-a-time rebirth of concerts, operas, recitals and plays in front of live audiences. It soon came to be the “new normal”, one sometimes calling for proof of vaccination and the wearing of masks, as was the case at Music Hall and Memorial Hall in Cincinnati for concerts of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Matinee Musicale Cincinnati.
  • At the College-Conservatory of Music live performances returned, including a Marriage of Figaro where all the singers could be heard in spite of being masked. In that show, a young lyric soprano by the name of Emma Marhefka shone brightly as a great Susanna-in-the-making.  
  • There was an Opera D’Arte Magic Flute available digitally with a talented student cast that managed to synchronize their singing despite the singers and accompaniment being video-taped in separate locations.
  • There are no longer any printed programs at CCM, a measure that makes sense economically and helps to avoid contagion.
  • The Cincinnati Opera and the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra both moved outdoors in an effort to bring normality back to the performing arts in our city. The opera presented cut versions of Carmenand The Barber of Seville with no scenery, simplified staging, and no intermissions. The Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra moved two concerts to Eden Park. In spite of mixed reviews from some naysayers. I tip my hat to both organizations for trying to keep artists employed and music lovers happy.
  • There were several people we said goodbye to, all connected in one way or another to the arts. Bass-baritone Tom Hammons left us even as the memory of his hilarious Majordomo in Ariadne auf Naxos with the Cincinnati Opera is still alive with those of us who saw him steal the show. Polk Laffoon, a patron of the arts and a good friend passed on while swimming near his family’s vacation home in Michigan. Tenor, Marco (Mark) Panuccio passed away, leaving behind a fine leacy of performances that highlighted a career in Opera and concerts. Farther afield the unanticipated death of Stephen Sondheim left a void with so many who in various ways were connected to his music and lyrics.
  • There were changes in Academia and in several arts organizations. Aubrey Berg who helmed the highly successful Musical Theatre program at CCM retired after thirty-two years on the job. So did fund-raising wizard Karen Tully. Two Opera notables were recruited by CCM: tenor Stuart Skelton and baritone Elliott Madore
  • LeAnne Anklam and Ann Stewart both members of the management triumvirate that has successfully run the Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra for several years resigned within weeks of each other.
  • The choice of artists and repertory from several arts organizations both nationally and locally has broadened in significantly positive ways. The Metropolitan Opera opened its current season with the first opera by a Black composer in its history: Fire Shut Up My Bones, Terence Blanchard’s adaptation of Charles M. Blow’s memoir of the same title.
  • In Cincinnati, both the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Cincinnati Matinee Musicale have welcomed minority artists to their 2021-2022 seasons, which have also been enriched by the works of minority composers.
  • There were many live performances that live on in our collective memory, among them the Cincinnati debut of conductor Roderick Cox with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and Conrad Tao’s playing of the Ravel Piano Concerto in the same program.
  • Starting a new season in its very own space – a flexible black box in which the audience sits just a few feet from the performers – Mutual Dance Theatre the recently renamed brain-child of artistic director Jeanne Mam-Luft brokered an artistic marriage of the Jefferson James Contemporary Dance Theatre and MamLuft&Co.Dance and brought back world class modern dance to Cincinnati.
  • Finally, the notorious MET Ring Cycle will be put to rest in some junk yard or other while a new one begins soon with a streamlined modern-dress Die Walküre that originated at the English National Opera eliciting both glowing and hate-filled reviews.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique sings Handel

JEANINE DE BIQUE, SOPRANO

Concerto Köln conducted by Luca Quintavalle

Berlin Classics

In Mirrors, a recent release by Berlin Classics the Trinidadian soprano Jeanine De Bique, shares the spotlight in her first solo album with the recent news about her birthplace having attained full status of republic. Congratulations to both!

The Concerto Köln conducted by Luca Quintavalle excels, idiomatically supporting the soprano, who in turn shines vocally and dramatically in a dozen Baroque opera arias.

Ranging from the familiar Giulio Cesare showstoppers to rarities such as Rimembranza crudel from Germanicus, De Bique displays a superb command of the vocal technique needed to take on the demands on agility, blend of the registers, range, and sustaining power required to sing this repertory.

More importantly and not content with just singing the notes accurately, the immensely gifted Jeanine De Bique inflects the text of whatever she sings with interpretative incisiveness, fleshing out the characters whose words she brings to life: Cleopatra’s mix of enticing sexuality and vulnerability, Alcina’s manipulative streak, or Agrippina’s innate wickedness are all vividly there.

Beyond the tremendous technique and interpretative acumen present in her singing, De Bique’s luscious voice gleams throughout a two-octave plus range, always at the service of the music.

In a February of 2014 review of Jeanine De Bique’s Cincinnati debut in recital with Matinee Musicale Cincinnati I wrote: “The young Trinidadian soprano’s assertive vocalism and forceful presence left one thinking that she is no mere soubrette, but a great Lucia, Gilda, or Susanna in the making.

We are happy to report that barely eight years later our words have proven true.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS    

Christoph Prégardien’s Brahms

Naxos Classics has just released a nicely engineered Brahms: Complete Songs, Vol. 1, (8574268) which includes over two dozen songs from opus numbers 32, 43, 86 and 105.

At the age of 65, and after a long and distinguished career as a tenor who primarily specialized in concert and oratorio, Christoph Prégardien, now singing as a baritone, continues to cultivate the German Song repertory.

Choosing lower keys does not magically turn a tenor into a baritone, timbre above all else dictates the vocal classification of a singer, but the range of a song and, even more importantly, tessitura – the area in which the music lies – determines what the singer should be doing.

In the case of Prégardien, the lower keys chosen by him for Wie Melodien zieht es mir, Klage,  Immer leiser wird mein Schlummer, Klage, Auf dem Kirchhofe, Feldeinsamkeit, Auf dem Kirchhofe, and Wie bist du, meine Königin each and every one of these songs short in length and lyric in mood, serve him well, making few demands on endurance and instead calling for delicacy of utterance and sensitivity, both qualities hallmarks of the tenor’s singing.

Prégardien is equally impressive in the narrative songs, like Verrat, where he mines the words as only the past master he is, extracting every ounce of meaning from the dramatic tale.

We hope that Prégardien will continue to collaborate with Ulrich Eisenlohr, a very fine accompanying pianist. It is also hoped that will continue to provide song translations and program notes in the future.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS

United Strings of Europe’s Renewal

Renewal (BIS-2549) is United Strings of Europe’s second release – soon to be out in January of 2022- is the first I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.     

The title of this BIS album by the London-based ensemble implies on one level that all but one of the works it includes are arranged by Julian Azkoul, first violinist and director of the group. But renewal can also be taken to mean a process of refreshing rediscovery, which this recording is.

In Winter’s House by Joanna Marsh and Caroline Shaw’s and the swallow are both originally choral works while Shaw’s Entr’acte, was written for string quartet, but is here heard in the composer’s own version for string orchestra.

Joanna Marsh’s In Winter’s House is set to mysterious, somewhat arcane, lyrical, modal-inflected, amply melodic music that often evokes sounds from centuries ago.

Caroline Shaw’s and the swallow and Entr’acte are both written in an enticingly melodic language that does not restrict the composer from occasional forays into spicy dissonance and minimalistic passages.

Mendelssohn’s F minor String Quartet, one of the composer’s final works, written in reaction to the unexpected death of his beloved sister Fanny, and three months before his own passing is here adapted for string orchestra and heard in an emotionally compelling performance that brings out the composer’s distraught response to the inevitability of death.

Osvaldo Golijov’s Three Songs, are also heard here for the first time with string orchestra accompaniment.

They are sung here by the wonderful soprano Ruby Hughes, an artist with an endless assortment of vocal colors and a flawlessly instrumental technique.

Night of the Flying Horses starts as an unaccompanied lullaby that soon develops into a Romani Doina that in turn builds into agitated music that depicts the flight of fantastical winged horses.

In Rosalia de Castro’s poem Lúa descolorida (Discolored Moon), written in the language of the Galician people, a desolate soul addresses the moon to haunting music by Golijov: If you know where Death has its dark dwelling, tell her to carry me body and soul as one to the place where no one will ever remember neither this world where I am nor the one above me.

How slow the wind a gentle poem by Emily Dickinson brings a felicitous closure to this incomparable, inky-dark song group.

Rafael de Acha      ALL ABOUT THE ARTS