Clean up, dress nice and play!

Before you get angry and start to sharpen the daggers you reserve for snarky music reviewers… take a deep breath and have a look. Pictures can paint a thousand words, and here you have a cross-section of orchestral  conductors and players of all ages and ethnicities, European, South American, American… When they go to work, most of these musicians take the time and trouble to clean up good.

A symphony concert is not an informal, come-as-you-are event. These days many conductors well into or well-past their middle-age and heavy in girth try to look hip and cool as they step up to the podium in loose-fitting black shirts worn outside their either baggy or way-too-slim for their age pants.

Most of them don’t have the build for that kind of outfit and, beyond that, they are up there on that stage for the duration of a two hour gig, with their backs to us, while we, the audience, have no alternative but to look at them waving their arms and wrinkling the badly-ironed shirt they came in wearing, as it rides way too high above their butts.

Come on guys, with your high-five or six-figure salaries (and up) you could certainly spring for a nice custom-made tux or, even better, tails! And if you perspire a lot, then bring an extra shirt to change into at intermission. That and ask the management to crank up the air conditioning.

In many cases the orchestra’s male personnel looks no better, dressed in various shades of black, no jackets, no ties, rubber-soled, unpolished shoes. The ladies 99% of the time look great, by the way. The truth is that most male musicians are visually-oriented beings for whom how one looks is nowhere as important as how one sounds.

But, for most of us out there who shelled out a few hard-earned dollars for tickets and/or parking to come to see as well as hear your concert, it would be good to have something nice to look at during your hour-long Mahler symphony.

Here are some nice outfits you can pick up on sale on… You’ll look good and even sound better.


Rafael de Acha


The year 2019 in Cincinnati was filled with music, and this listener always tried to get to not only the well-publicized “majors” but to the mid-sized musical organizations that cannot easily afford to get the word out about their work. Here is my list of 2019 favorites, a bit early, I know but I might be absent for the best part of the coming weeks.

IMMACULATA ENSEMBLE.jpgCHAMBER MUSIC: The Immaculata Church in Mt. Adams opened its 2018-2019 Chamber Music Series with string players Christina Nam, Holly Nelson, Kanako Shimasaki, Yu-Ting Huang, Hojoon Choi, and Jonathan Lee assembled into what we hope will be a permanent group. In a city rich in musical offerings it is difficult for an ensemble of young players to establish an identity and make a mark. All the more remarkable that this musically ad-hoc group should begin its young journey so auspiciously.

CCO FESTIVAL: During the dog days of August, the fully blossomed Cincinnati Chamber Orchestra once more brought to Cincinnati’s music lovers a plentiful supply of world class soloists, up and coming young artists, and the playing of a cohesive, disciplined, and fluent ensemble made up of some of the best musicians in these parts, led by the never predictable, ever reliable Eckart Preu in off-the-beaten-path programming throughout a multi-concert Summemusik mini-festival.

63D81DD1-69BE-4A47-A78E-C85912340730OPERA: A variety of characters are subjected to the sorrowful vagaries of the American legal system and wrongfully convicted. David Cote’s potent libretto and Scott Davenport Richards’ emotionally charged score tell their stories of incarceration, exoneration, and redemption in Blind Injustice, a memorable world premiere brilliantly staged by Robin Guarino and fiercely conducted, sung, and played with the chameleonic  John Morris Russell at the helm, a riveting experience that Cincinnati will remember for a long time.


STUDENT ORCHESTRAL: It is quite remarkable that on the same September day, two orchestras would open their seasons in a mid-sized, mid-western city. One is a terrific student group, the Philharmonia Orchestra at the University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music (CCM), led by the superb conductor, Mark Gibson. In a marvelously played concert of music by Brahms and Dvořák, the CCM group alternated delicacy with bold assertiveness. This kind of triumph by brilliant young musicians is a frequent occurrence in music-wealthy Cincinnati, and we count our blessings. Then there is in the same school several other orchestral ensembles, among them the CCM Concert Orchestra, which on a cold November evening gave a towering performance worthy of the best of professional groups, of Dimitri Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 5 led by yet another first class conductor, the Malaysian-born Aik Khai Pung. Lucky students, lucky Cincinnati!

Kirill Gerstein Photo: Marco Borggreve              

SOLO PERFORMANCE WITH AN ORCHESTRA: Notoriously treacherous for pianists, Rachmaninoff’s Third Piano Concerto demands agility, enormous strength, inexhaustible energy, protean musicality, and a sense of the poetic. It requires, in short an artist like the 39-year old Russian-born Kirill Gerstein. Karina Canellakis made an impeccable partner for Gerstein and led the CSO with vibrancy and acute sensitivity.


ORCHESTRAL: Christopher Rouse completed his Sixth Symphony, barely three months before his untimely death from cancer at the age of seventy. The work’s now somber, now agitated, now elegiac tone says with rare profoundness what mere words cannot begin to convey, as moments of reflective stasis contrast with blunt agitation, evoking life’s vicissitudes. The Cincinnati players gave a powerful, soulful performance, with Louis Langrée at the helm heroically holding together Rouse’s momentous creation. Whether the composer intended it or not, the music spoke of a great life well lived nearing its end

Rafael de Acha.

At home with my top CD and DVD choices

cThroughout 2019 I reviewed dozens of CD’s and DVD’s sent to me by a number of recording companies. This is my TOP TEN list.


The Baltimore Consort Listening to the Baltimore Consort’s Sono Luminus CD The Food of Love made this acquaintance with a treasure trove of Elizabethan music sheer joy. Performed by Mary Anne Ballard, Mark Cudek, Larry Lipkis, Ronn McFarlane and Mindy Rosenfeld, on treble and bass viols, citterns, recorders, crumhorns, fifes, and bagpipes, with the silvery-voiced soprano Danielle Svonavec brilliantly bringing to life the music of several contemporaries of Shakespeare the album reminded us of what good music accompanied the works of the Bard.


th Daniel Tarrab’s music is quintessentially Buenos Aires tango music. The Argentine master writes and plays his own music, mesmerizing with his jazzy riffs, his classical cadenzas, and his improvisatory flights of fancy that seamlessly bounce off each other. Tarrab reveals his soul in every bar of every tango of every track of Otra Mirada, available from both Silva Screen Records and Times Square Records.


th Stewart Goodyear’s brilliantly inventive Callaloo is a musical fantasy in which snippets of Trinidad’s Calypso vie for attention with a heady mix of Jamaican Mento, afro-Cuban Guaguancó, Son, Conga and Guaracha, and inter-island Soca. The superbly hip Chineke Orchestra is beautifully conducted by Wayne Marshall, with a solo bow going to the terrific percussion section for its temperature-raising Latin drumming-on-steroids. The ORCHID CLASSICS CD includes the original band version of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue given an energetic reading by Goodyear and friends.


Tamara-cover-square Pentatone‘s CD of American songs with soprano Melody Moore and pianist Bradley Moore makes one hard put to find enough adequate words of praise for both artists. Assembling an album of over thirty songs by five American composers could be a daunting task, not because there are not enough songs to go around- which there are – but because numbing sameness could set in the hands of lesser artists. But throughout seven groupings of songs by Barber, Heggie, Floyd, Copland, and Gordon Getty, Moore and Moore find an inexhaustible variety of vocal and pianistic colors to sustain the interest and engage the emotions of the listener, leaving us wishing for more Moore.


thU2TROO95 There is open mindedness in the choice of compositions for the Ansonica CD CORO DEL MUNDO. There is also a purposeful commitment to an artistic philosophy that embraces the ideals of peace and brotherhood through music. Two Cuban choral groups: Schola Cantorum Coralina and Vocal Luna, lend their voices to an intriguingly varied collection of works by international composers in this CD, with both ensembles deftly handling the many improvisatory passages, with the all-women Vocal Luna creating dazzling instrumental sounds with its voices and with Schola Cantorum shining in various hip-swaying settings of Cuban poetry.


1568325347_cover Norwegian harpist Sidsel Walstad is technically and musically a force of nature, holding her own against the massive orchestration of Alberto Ginastera’s Harp Concerto and his Variaciones Concertantes. Protean in her ability to spin a long legato line with an instrument notoriously hard to master, Walstad jointly with the Norwegian Radio Orchestra, led by Miguel Harth-Bedoya delivers a memorable performance in this LAWO release.


tfedxt-four-preview-m3_550x550 The absolutely charming métier release FOUR with the superb London Myriad, a wind ensemble featuring Julie Groves on flute, oboist Fiona Joyce Myall, the clarinetist Nadia Wilson, and Ashley Myall on bassoon, introduced this listener to the chamber music of Eugène Bozza, Frank Bridge, Jean Françaix, Richard Rodney-Bennett, Jacques Ibert, and Claude Arrieu. The four in FOUR are formidable musicians, impeccable technicians, young of age but mature as players of music that is now lyrical, now outrageously humorous, and blessedly unpretentious.


Ricciardo_DVD_COV_3000 During his rather short career Rossini wrote over three dozen-plus operas, many of which have fallen into unjust neglect, among them RICCIARDO E ZORAIDE. Now in a new release of this Rossini rarity by Cmajor, the double DVD features a terrific cast led by Peruvian tenor Juan Diego Florez and South African soprano Pretty Yende in the title roles. The 2018 live Pesaro Festival recording measures up to the highest of standards, boasting a superb line up of Rossini specialists. Florez and Yende are simply perfect. Tenor Sergey Romanovsky (Agorante) and mezzo-soprano Victoria Yarovaya (Zomira) are both spectacular. Kudos also go to the fast-rising Basque leggiero tenor Xabier Anduaga in the role of Ernesto, and the impressive bass-baritone Nicola Ulivieri as Ircano.


637479225-alexander-tsymbalyuk-25ng This BIS recording of the rough-hewn, big-boned 1869 original version of Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov stars the young Ukrainian Alexander Tsymbalyuk in the title role. He is sensationally good, commanding yet restrained, and in control of the crowd in the Coronation scene, stunning in the Kremlin scene, vulnerable and ultimately heartbreaking in his Death scene. Finnish bass Mika Kares is Pimen, singing patricianly and lyrically at all times. Alexey Tikhomirov is no mere buffo bass but a sonorously menacing Varlaam. The Shuisky, Maxim Paster and the Grigory, Sergei Skorokhodov are both first-tier tenors luxuriously cast in supporting roles. Kent Nagano commands his forces magisterially, eliciting sheer musical magic from the Gothenburg Symphony Orchestra, the Gothenburg Opera Chorus, and the Brunnsbo Music Classes Children’s Chorus.

Rafael de Acha

The deeper the blue…


The SOMM compact disc The deeper the blue… takes both its title and its aesthetic from a Kandinsky essay in which the painter speaks of the mystical properties of color in nature and in music.

In the playing of the superb violinist Janet Sung and her collaborators: the accomplished pianist Simon Callaghan, and the rank and file of the note-perfect Britten Sinfonia with the wonderful Dutch conductor Jac van Steen at the helm, we hear a strong commitment to honor the spirit of the multifaceted selections in this intriguing CD.

There’s the 1925 neoclassical and elegant Concerto for Violin and String Orchestra of Ralph Vaughn Williams, a work for solo piano by Henri Dutilleux: the enchanting set of six pieces given the omnibus title Au gré des ondes, here brilliantly orchestrated by Kenneth Hesketh and originally conceived with no further pretentions than to provide connecting music for a group of episodes for 1946 French radio broadcasts.

A compelling 2015 composition by British composer Kenneth Hesketh provides a welcome dose of atonal brawn in this largely tonal assemblage of 20th and 21st century works.

The album also includes two tour de force works: Ravel’s Tzigane, a ten-minute musical obstacle course for only the bravest of violinists, which Janet Sung dispatches without breaking a sweat.

At the end of the CD, Ms. Sung returns in the company of the multi-talented pianist Simon Callaghan to give a fun-filled, jazzy, classy, bluesy an ultimately technically dazzling performance of a notoriously challenging Ravel work: the Sonata for Violin and Piano.

The SOMMCD275 is flawlessly engineered by Ben Conellan, properly produced by Siva Oke, given insightful line notes by Michael Quinn and available as a new release from SOMM.

Rafael de Acha

Join us in helping C-CM students and the arts

Dear Friends, To continue our fundraising efforts scholarships for UC’s College-Conservatory of Music, our Everything But the House sales continue. Each sale states that the proceeds will benefit the C-CM scholarship fund through Music for All Seasons. We’ll be donating 100% of what we receive, so please take a look.

Today, there are 3 large sets of books live for auction, but in the coming days there will be many more books in different categories–etc, along with works of art, two 19th Century Swedish articles about the Swedish Nightingale, Jenny Lind in acid free mats, a three-page letter written famous opera singer Ernestine Schumann-Heink, a pair of hand painted Empire period Old Paris vases, a 1930’s Snow White Kewpie Doll, a Waterford crystal champagne bucket, two beautiful old clocks, a hand loomed blanket, a great old world globe from the 1920’s on a beautiful stand, antique dishes, a beautiful antique set of matching tea and coffee pots by Powell and Bishop, a collection of great old copper cookware, a pair of Chinese cloisonne mirror vases, large signed hand painted Japanese plate. . . . at present there are some FIFTY lots of items being processed by Everything But the House , and there will be more to come.

Pieces will “Go Live” as they refer to the sales, and will be added in the coming days and weeks. Please take a look. You can connect directly to our sales by pasting in

If you see something you love, please bid, and join us in helping talented C-CM students and the arts, by helping train the next generation of great musicians.



The Austrians call it Schlager Musik a term for which there is no good translation other than “hit” music. I call it light classical music and leave it at that.

Jonas Kaufmann is running out of repertory after having completed the entire Wagner Heldentenor canon and then moved on to Puccini, Verdi, Mahler, et al. His is basically a hefty instrument with a clarion top, a baritone timbre in the middle voice, and, heaven knows, plenty of power, so that to tackle the rep featured in the SONY CD WIEN the German tenor has had to pull way back on the stentorian and lay on thickly the saccharine sound and schmaltzy delivery that back in the day made maidens swoon to the sound of that quintessential operetta tenor, the great Richard Tauber.

But that is like asking an ATV to drive in the cobblestoned alleyways of Alte Wien. From me Herr Kaufmann gets an E for effort if not for effortlessness: his handling of the ditties of Stolz, Sieczynsky, May, Johann Strauss, Lehar, Kalman, Zeller, Weinberger, Leopoldi, Benatzky, Kreuder, and Kreisler –all toll nineteen in this album – is vocally faultless at the mezzo-forte to forte levels. But when he goes for a mezza-voce top note that then turns into a breathy croon and good vocalism vanishes. And there are lots of top notes in this album: either the multi-decibel kind or the Dean Martin/Perry Como kind.

Elsewhere Kauffman phrases elegantly, but no matter how noble his intentions the outcome is not what some of us weaned on the recorded sounds of Peter Anders, Joseph Schmidt, Rudolf Schock, Fritz Wunderlich and, yes, Richard Tauber have come to expect from an interpreter of this charming and unabashedly sentimental music. This is a Siegfried in white tie and tails and decidedly not a good fit.

The accompaniment by the Vienna Philharmonic, no less, is deluxe, the conductor, Adam Fischer a moonlighting heavyweight, the brief participation of Rachel-Willis-Sorenson quite pretty, the accompanying booklet complete, the engineering professional, the singing good, but… lighten up Jonas.

*** E for EFFORT

Rafael de Acha



In a superb cd (sommcd0604) finely engineered by Gianni Ruggiero and Lello De Luca, SOMM has recently released a collection of works for guitar by the 18th century Catalan guitarist and composer Fernando Sor. The Italian virtuoso Gianluigi Giglio is the sole and superb soloist playing ten gems that chart the artistic progress of the composer.

Born in 1778 still under the influence of the Roman Catholic Church’s approved musical rules and regulations, it was a while before the Barcelona-born master came into his own. By 1822 and living in exile in Paris he is able to write expansively and authentically his utterly charming Les folies d’Espagne.

By 1836 , just three years before his untimely death at the age of 61, Sor proves himself not only a resourceful master of his instrument but an accomplished composer, with a full mastery of harmony and contrapuntal writing for an instrument that had for centuries been relegated to the strumming of amateurs in the bar and the café.

Sor elevated the guitar to its noble and rightfully earned place in the concert hall, paving the way for the Turinas and Granados and Fallas and Rodrigos and interpreters of generations still to come. In his 24 Progressive Lessons for Beginners Sor established the ABC of guitar playing.

And as for Gianluigi Giglio, last but not least, the music and the recording are blessed by a masterfully accomplished artist. Musically elegant, technically awesome, Giglio uncannily extracts a singing tone from an instrument long associated with chords, strumming, and plucking.

The spirit of Sor must have been gazing down from Parnassus casting a beneficent gaze on this worthy project.

***** Extraordinary

Rafael de Acha – Music Notes (

No labels

untitled 2

The mere idea of attaching labels to the music of certain composers is a 20th century malaise. But in order to read up on Eugène Bozza, Frank Bridge, Jean Françaix, Richard Rodney-Bennett, Jacques Ibert, and Claude Arrieu, I had to do a Google search and endure a barrage of pseudo-musicological claptrap which led me nowhere.

I then closed up the search and settled down to listen to the absolutely charming métier release FOUR ( msv28587) with the superb London Myriad, a wind ensemble featuring here Julie Groves on flute, oboist Fiona Joyce Myall, the clarinetist Nadia Wilson, and Ashley Myall on bassoon.

The four in FOUR are formidable musicians, impeccable technicians, young of age but mature as players of music that is now lyrical, now outrageously humorous, and in the case of each of both the British and the Gallic composers in this lot, blessedly unpretentious.

The métier CD introduced this listener to Eugène Bozza and Claude Arrieu. Both are new discoveries, both utterly delightful, both resolutely defiant of any labeling, both writing in an idiom that responded to the strict teaching of the Conservatoire by mocking it. Jacques Ibert also was a bit of a rebel and his Deux Mouvements evidence creative flair and solid compositional know-how.

It was very nice to revisit the rarely played music of the English Edwardian iconoclast (sorry about those two labels!) who was accepted by what he first wrote and ignored about what he wrote much later in his long career. Here his four Divertimenti are sheer delight.

The other Brit Richard Rodney Bennett (talk about a crossover artist!) has always been a favorite of ours whether as a jazzman or a cabaret artist or in white tie and tails.

As with so very many releases by métier both engineering and packaging are of the first order.

***** Out of this world!

Rafael de Acha  

Giving Der Freischütz your best shot


Casting Carl Maria von Weber’s 1821 warhorse Der Freischütz can be tricky. If you have a true lyric-dramatic soprano (the Italians call it Soprano Spinto) available to sing Agathe you have one third of your casting challenge solved. If she happens to be a really good singer, one capable of spinning out a nice legato line for both Wie nahte mir der Schlummer…Leise, leise and Und ob die Wolke and later the strength to ride the climactic moments that abound in the music of Agathe then that is your lucky day.

In the Pentatone recording, the cast is enhanced by the extraordinary Norwegian soprano Lise Davidsen, whose lyric-dramatic gifts are put to work by the immensely gifted 32 year old artist in a memorably sung performance.

Oh but then, who are you going to cast as the deeply troubled Romaic hero Max? If you have the soprano you just hired as Agathe, then you want a bit more sound from your Max than a garden variety full-voiced tenor. Max has a nice trio in act two in which he has to vocally stand up to his stage partner and her little companion Ännchen and subsequently move on to the spookiest part of the opera: the Wolf Glenn’s scene.

This listener was taken aback by the sad condition of tenor Andreas Schager’s voice, plagued as it is by a troublesome wobble that causes him to go astray in the lower and middle voice in which most of the role is written, as is the case with Durch die Wälder. The role of Max has at various times been sung by voices as lyrical as Francisco Araiza, Peter Schreier and Nicolai Gedda, and it seems as if Andreas Schager’s voice, which has been punished by too many Siegfrieds and Tristans is not the ideal one for the role of the haunted hunter.

And there’s Caspar, neither a lovable wise man nor a friendly ghost but a wicked ghostly presence with a couple of very difficult arias to dispatch in Act One, one chockfull of F sharps, the other with nearly two octaves of vocal hurdles.

If you don’t know who Gottlob Frick is, check him out sometime on You Tube singing Kaspar’s Hier im ird’schen Jammerthal and Schweig! damit dich Niemand warnt and you will hear rock solid, inky-black bass singing much needed by the singer who takes on this role. Alright, so Frick is gone, but out there in the cold cruel world that the Opera business can be, there must be a bass-baritone capable of dispatching Caspar’s killer arias without much trouble. In this recording, the estimable American bass-baritone Alan Held now nearing the end of a fine career sounds dry and tired, barking out the highest notes in the part, and lacking the vocal heft needed for it.

The rest of the musical personnel is fine, with soprano Sofia Formina utterly charming as the Ännchen, the Leipzig Radio Chorus outstanding especially in Was gleicht wohl auf Erden, and Marek Janowski beautifully leading the Frankfurt Radio Symphony in which the folkloric and the deadly serious perfectly balance.

*** Quite good

Rafael de Acha 


untitled PAAVO

• MESSIAEN – Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich Paavo Järvi – L’Ascension… Le Tombeau Resplendissant…Les Offfrandes Oubliées… Un Sourire… Alpha Classics

In Inga Mai Groote’s extensively researched notes on Olivier Messiaen accompanying this Alpha Classics, the writer notes how in 1985 Messiaen himself pointed out several “difficulties” (his word) that listeners to his music might find off-putting: his preoccupation with rhythm, his ideas about the intrinsic property of certain colors, his love and use of birdsong, and the Catholic mysticism with which he infuses so many of his works.

In listening to the symphonic meditations (Messiaen’s term) this listener failed to hear any birdsong. Likewise there was no music particularly rhythmic in nature though many slow tempi in use by the composer to express alternatively ecstasy or horror in the presence of the Cross, Sin, the Eucharist, and Christ.

Messiaen’s music is a taste some of us have not acquired, therefore let us leave well enough alone other than to praise the impressive sound of the Tonhalle-Orchester Zurich with Paavo Järvi at the podium

*** Interesting


John McCabe piano Domenico Scarlatti Muzio Clementi Keyboard Sonatas               divine art (dda21231)

Hats off to the singularly supportive and ever enterprising Stephen Sutton of divine art for securing the rights to a re-release of this collection of Baroque and Classical gems for the keyboard, simply titled Domenico Scarlatti Muzio Clementi Keyboard Sonatas on a double-CD that will assuredly provide nearly two hours of exquisite playing by the late British keyboard master John McCabe.

Scarlatti wrote his twelve sonatas for keyboard with the harpsichord in mind. Playing them on a piano, as McCabe does on this occasion requires crystal clear articulation, gentle touch, and a vey judicious use of pedals. McCabe makes this seem as easy as child’s play. He then spins around and imbues the music of the Italian in nationality yet Mozartian in spirit Muzio Clementi with quintessential elegance and restraint, saving the dazzling passagework and show-stopping agility for the final movements of three of the neglected Italian master’s sonatas.

***** Extraordinary