‘AS ONE’ IS A BRIGHT SHINY THING

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As One is a chamber work for two voices and string quartet by composer Laura Kaminsky and librettists Mark Campbell and Kimberly Reed in which theatrical and musical magic are made within the span of ninety minutes. The Fry Street Quartet provides the instrumental accompaniment to the voices of mezzo soprano Sasha Cooke and baritone Kelly Markgraf in a new CD (BSTC-0127) soon to be released by Bright Shiny Things.

The story of Hannah, formerly a male and now transgender, is told in a series of vignettes tracing her journey from a young boy, through college to early adulthood. There is no plot in the conventional sense, but instead a strong narrative that reveals Hannah’s innermost thoughts and emotions.

Kelly Margraff, an impressive singing actor with a rich baritone, plays Hannah Before (i.e., before her transition), and Sasha Cooke, a fast-rising and creamy-voiced mezzo-soprano, plays Hannah After. Both gifted young singers tell the story of a transgender person in the process of first finding—and then reinventing—whatever is left of the outward trappings of her former self.

Admittedly not a subject matter familiar or perhaps even not palatable to some of the opera-going public, As One was inspired by the real-life story of librettist Kimberly Reed.
The creative team responsible for this welcome release handles the material sensitively and intelligently. American Opera Projects provided the infrastructure that saw this work from idea to reality. Judith Sherman, Louis Levitt, Matt Gray, Laura Kaminsky were the CD producers, Jamey Lamar the engineer.

Operas of this theatrical and musical quality are injecting new blood into a centuries-old repertory—not to supplant it but to infuse it with a 21st-century sensibility that rings bells of recognition for an audience that the opera world is hoping to attract. With Kaminsky’s inventive score serving the text 100% of the time, and Campbell and Reed’s libretto in full partnership with her, As One is a welcome breath of fresh air.

Rafael de Acha

SCHUBERT’S SOUL ON A FINAL JOURNEY

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The German poet Wilhelm Müller provided the texts for Franz Schubert’s 1828 song cycle Die Winterreise. Müller had died at age 32 of a heart attack, five years before Schubert, who succumbed to a venereal disease, like Müller did at 32 years of age.

Both Müller, poet of words and Schubert, poet of music created what is arguably the greatest song cycle of all time. Well over an hour in length, Die Winterreise (The Winter Journey), completed during the last few months of the composer’s life portrays a harrowing descent from heartbreak to a final existential embrace of an long awaited end.

Schubert’s friends expressed concern over the horrific nature of two dozen interlinked songs that take both the interpreters and the listener on an unrelenting chilling journey of darkness and despondency. But the composer insisted that songs that even his closest of friends did not like or understand would eventually be recognized among the greatest creations of the Romantic Era. No wonder that the German composer’s greatest composition for voice and piano reminds some of us of other monumental works that chart a human soul’s journey from the unhappiness of the living to the quietude of the grave: Shakespeare’s King Lear, Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, some of Pablo Neruda’s Sonnets…

The requirements for the singer who dares to take on Die Winterreise call for a protean being with brains and brawn, vocal beauty, musicianship, musicality, and soulfulness. Simon Barrad, an enormously gifted artist measured up on every count as he rose to the immense challenge that Schubert’s final work presents.

On the opening night of The Art of the Piano Festival at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music, Simon Barrad held the audience emotionally captive in the intimate Werner Recital Hall for the length of the performance. The possessor of a chameleonic, multi-colored voice, now bright, now dark hued, one that easily rises to the top of the lyric baritone range for climactic moments only to then comfortably descend to the bass depths, the young singer gave a performance for the books.

Schubert’s legendary genius for tone painting is present in the piano accompaniments of Die Winterreise: an unceasingly spinning weathervane in Die Wetterfahne, the melting of ice and the flowing water in Wasserflut, the gallop of a postman’s horse in Die Post, the overhead fluttering of a bird of omen in Die Krähe, all and more of which must be brought to life by the pianist. Sensitive and pliable at all times, bold and assertive when called for, never prone to antics or mannerisms, Awadagin Pratt, a consummate master of the keyboard, proved to be the perfect partner for the singer, summoning a multitude of dynamics and colors from his instrument.

Simon Barrad singing barely above a whisper and Awadagin Pratt hardly touching the keyboard brought the evening to a chilling musical close with the eerie stasis of Die Leiermann, the Death-like Hurdy-Gurdy player who brings to a final end Schubert’s Die Winterreise.

Barrad’s and Pratt’s Die Winterreise was a journey of the soul that for the length of an unforgettable evening we took as awed companions of two superlative artists.

Rafael de Acha

Bohuslav Martinů SONGS

Among Czech composers, Bohuslav Martinů stands tall as a 20th century example of survival against all odds. In spite of many vicissitudes that challenged his mental and physical well-being, Martinů soldiered on, composing nearly four hundred works – symphonies, concerti, ballets, chamber music, and a treasure trove of songs for voice and piano.

Supraphon has released an exquisitely produced, perfectly packaged, and elegantly engineered album of Martinů’s music simply titled Bohuslav Martinů SONGS. It features two singers worth sitting up for and listening to: soprano Martina Janková and baritone Tomáš Král both accompanied by Ivo Kahánek

The album beautifully designed by Tomas Coufál and illustrated with art photography by several Czech visual artists is proof palpable that it often takes village to create great work. The song texts are given in three languages, with the English translation by Mark Newkirk of both the lyrics and the insightful notes by Ales Brezina greatly contributing to the enjoyment of this collection of songs.

For those of us not neither familiar with Martinů’s songs nor all that knowledgeable about Czech art song this Supraphon SU-4235-2 release is nothing short of a welcome gift of discoveries.

Four song cycles are included: Songs On One Page, Songs On Two Pages, New Slovak Songs, and New Chapbook. Except for the lengthier New Slovak Songs, written in 1920, the other three works approximately run from eight to eleven minutes, each containing seven to eight miniatures, some as brief as 28 seconds, none longer than three minutes. Three of the four cycles were written in the early 1940’s.

The texts of all fifty-two songs in this album speak of bucolic landscapes, love requited and unrequited, carnal love, spiritual love, family, beautiful girls, handsome lads, and happy endings. At no time repetitive or monotonous or formulaic, the music for these songs is deeply rooted in Czech and Bohemian folk song, and it bespeaks inspiration and craftsmanship in a perfect union.

There are plenty of pleasant surprises: lively patter ditties, irregular rhythms, modality, unpredictable harmonic resolutions, plaintive lullabies, recitatives… The music and the euphonious sound of the Czech language are ideally married by Martinů’s protean gifts.

Martina Janková’s lyric soprano is simply ravishing. Crystal-clear, with a firmly controlled technique, she succeeds in breaking through the language barrier, fully expressing the myriad sentiments contained in these songs.

The young lyric baritone Tomáš Král affirms his credentials as an immensely gifted recitalist, singing in a creamy voice with authority and sensitivity as a solo singer or as an elegant duo partner. The solidly supportive pianist Ivo Kahánek makes his participation not merely that of an accompanist but one of an equal partner of the two singers.

We will look forward to future releases by Supraphon after this superb recording.

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

Tenore di Forza

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Tenore di Forza is the title of the debut DELOS (DE 3571) recording of Lithuanian tenor Kristian Benedikt.

It is also the name of a rare vocal category, better known in these parts as dramatic tenor – a rare voice type that belongs to a sparsely populated group of vocally endowed male singers whose exclusive domain encompasses Verdi’s Otello, Wagner’s heroes, and some of the Verismo repertory including Pagliacci, Cavalleria Rusticana, and Turandot, in addition to a handful of French rarities such as Eleazar in La Juive and the male title roles in Saint-Saëns’ Samson et Dalila and Massenet’s Le Cid.

But of course, what defines a singer is not what he sings but how he sings it, and that includes not only the basic vocal equipment but the capacity to meet the demands of the vocal writing: endurance, range, volume, and cutting power. Add to that the musicianship, the ear for languages, and the stylistic flair expected from all vocal types and the bar goes up several notches. Oh, by the way, vocal beauty – that subjective “thing” also plays a role in one’s predilection for this and not that voice. Here, unarguably I dare say, we have a dramatic tenor that does not bellow but emits a very warm and pleasing sound. In short, Kristian Benedikt is the possessor of  a very beautiful voice.

We are happy to report that Kristian Benedikt meets all the demands of the varied repertory he takes on in his debut album. Judging from the sound he produces with no tell-tale symptoms of fatigue or vocal strain, it would be safe to say that this fine Lithuanian artist is now ready to move on to the forefront of today’s go-to male singers that specialize in this difficult repertory.

His Otello, represented here by the outburst that leads to his soliloquy Dio mi potevi scagliar is effectively delivered in a suffocated parlando that opens up at the last minute into a clarion Bb. By contrast Benedikt can spin out a seamless legato in both Nessun dorma and in a feelingly sung Rachel quand du Seigneur.

Benedikt transitions comfortably from Siegfried’s stentorian narrative with the famous long-held Wälse! Wälse! Wo ist dein Schwer (which happily matches just about any in this writer’s memory) to an elegantly sung O Souverain, ô Juge, ô Père. He adds for good measure arias in Russian and Lithuanian, and, intermingled with the to-be-expected tenor warhorses, some rarities, such as an aria from Ponchielli’ I Lituani. His languages all sound good and idiomatic with no crimes committed to the tricky French vowels.

Modestas Pitrenas nobly helms the very fine Lithuanian National Symphony Orchestra and the excellent Lithuanian National Opera Chorus. The CD is nicely accompanied by a booklet with the texts of the arias in both the original and English. The engineering by Dainius Versulis is thoughtfully geared to keeping the oversized voice of Benedikt, the large orchestra, and the chorus in balance and at a realistic distance replicating the actual aural circumstance of an opera performance.

Kristian Benedikt is starting to be more present on this side of the pond with return engagements at the MET. For us poor flyovers in the Midwest it would be a welcome gift to see the young Lithuanian pop in for a guest gig at the Chicago Lyric or at the Cincinnati Opera. One can only hope.

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

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