Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Bryan Hymel on French Opera, Physiology, and Stamina

By Erica Miner



Praised by NPR as the “new king of the high C’s”, touted by the French media as the “new hero of French opera…without equal”, tenor Bryan Hymel’s rapid rise is being followed by opera mavens worldwide. French conductor Emmanuel Villaume describes Hymel’s voice as having the qualities of “great agility, brilliant top...full-bodied…like no other these days.” Winner of the 2013 Olivier Award for Outstanding Achievement in Opera for his performances in Les Troyens, Robert le diable, and Rusalka at London’s Royal Opera House, and also the Metropolitan Opera’s Beverly Sills Artist Award for his Troyens debut there, the New Orleans native brings his youthful passion and remarkable fort ténor to the opera stage worldwide. 

EM: I’m so impressed with what I’ve been reading and hearing about you. Your upcoming schedule is mind-boggling. 

BH: Yes, it’s a little crazy but I’ve survived. I have a month or so to recharge the batteries. Right now I’m kicking back. It’s 82 degrees in New Orleans. 

EM: Your newly released first solo album for Warner Classics, Héroïque (http://www.amazon.com/Héroïque-French-Opera-Bryan-Hymel/dp/B00P97SHNQ/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1421077330&sr=8-1&keywords=bryan+hymel+heroique&tag=smarturl-20), received five stars on Amazon. Congratulations! When did the album release? 

BH: A few weeks ago. It was a great experience. As I’m sure you know, trying to get a major label behind you and take a chance was a huge hurdle in and of itself before we even recorded anything, let alone a program like this - it’s all rib-eye steaks or big entrées. [Laughs] You have to take into consideration not just how the record will play from beginning to end but how individually the tracks might be interesting to people on things like Spotify, Pandora, Google Radio and iTunes. 

EM: It’s a whole different experience to record now with all the various media that have cropped up. Being an artist is not what it used to be. 

BH: It’s more complicated. I think it puts a lot of pressure on the artist, especially your first CD, to put something out that is impressive, representative and also beautiful - its own little work of art. It was right before the baby was born when they had agreed and we started talking about what the project was going to be, and she’s now 16 months. [Laughs] It started off mainly being a CD of Meyerbeer, Berlioz and Rossini, but they decided they wanted more composers for a CD of 65 minutes, so we found a lot of other options. 

EM: Any plans for another recording? 

BH: It’s a 3-recording deal, so If everything keeps going well hopefully will have three total. We’re trying to decide if we will stay with this French heroic one or do Donizetti or some of the other Verdi. I want to do something in Italian, where there’s a niche I will be able to step into. 

EM: I’m certainly looking forward to that. I saw the video (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=41NTaw4sMFE) where you’re recording an aria from Rossini’s Guillaume Tell. Pardon me for asking, but exactly how many high C’s do you sing in that aria? 

BH: That’s a tricky one. There’s ten between the aria and cabaletta, if you do both verses You have to do both to get the one more High C than the nine in La Fille du Regiment

EM: And you make it sound so easy! 

BH: Oh, thank you. We were trying to decide if we were going to do two verses because it’s the same music and every second has to count. In the end we decided it was just more fun to do it the way it was presented. The trend right now is to do things more the way they were written and be as faithful to that as we can. In a recording you might sacrifice some of the excitement of the opera house. In arias like the one from Les Troyens I sang it literally the way I would have in the show, but really true to the French style. For instance at the end of the aria when I sing, [Sings] I hold that last note as long as I can and then take a breath. Emmanuel (Villaume, the conductor) was like, “This is not very French.” [Laughs] 

EM: Do you consider Guillaume Tell, written in French by Rossini, French or Italian repertoire? Do you feel more comfortable in one or the other? 

BH: Rossini, being Italian but writing for the French, obviously knew that style. What may be a bit tricky is the setting of the French words. Italian is more straightforward. Of the Rossini and Verdi I’ve sung, they’re probably one foot in French, one foot in Italian. When you hire a Rossini or a Verdi to come over and write you a French opera, they are writing in a different style. When you ask a Michelangelo to come back later and paint something impressionistic, it would still be him as the artist, but pointing in a certain direction. Opera being a multinational and multi-linguistic art form, once you develop your own perspective of different kinds of music, then you can have a real opinion about whether it’s Italian or French. 

EM: It sounds like you feel equally comfortable in both.

BH: Absolutely. There are different challenges. What makes French more difficult than Italian are vowels. The closed “u” and “e” are very tricky to get your throat around. I think people say, “It sounds so easy in your voice,” because I figured out a way to keep it open in my throat and closed in my mouth in the pronunciation. It’s tricky to separate those two things because you think the voice and throat are all one. That’s true from a strictly organic point of view, but your tongue and your jaw are the articulators that make the vowels and consonants specific and clear. If you let that creep down in your throat you end up getting a very tight “e.” It’s taken me a lot of time to figure out how to do that. With Italian the throat is always open and even on an “e” vowel the composer would write it differently. (Gilbert) Duprez, who did his vocal studies in Italy, knew how to approach that, and I think this is what led to His full-chested high C that made it different and exciting, singing the way the audiences in Paris had not experienced before, certainly in their own language. 

EM: You received high praise from Paris Soir as having the potential to become “the greatest fort ténor since Georges Thill. Would the phrase “French heldentenor” accurately describe your voice?



BH: [Laughs] I think it’s funny, the way people term themselves. Georges Thill, probably the most famous French tenor of recent history aside from Alagna, also trained in Italy, but people don’t realize it - they just say, “He’s French.” In Italy Thill studied bel canto style. To be the reigning tenor of the French repertoire, as in Robert le diable, he had to be a marvelous singer. But it’s a different kind of voice, a different kind of throat, the way it’s constructed. Whatever it is about the Italian sound that makes a singer sound Italian there’s something physiological there. I think Georges Thill’s voice was a little lower than mine from the recordings of his I’ve heard. But I don’t think the French have a heldentenor. It’s such a German word, and those Wagnerian roles are a good step or step and a half lower than the French ones. A lot of French people don’t even like Berlioz because they think he’s too bombastic and kind of crazy and out there. For me I love it. Berlioz has been so good to me because what he wrote fits my throat. 

EM: The role of Enée in Les Troyens is infamously difficult to sing. As a Met Opera violinist I heard many tenors struggle with it. Could you describe your experience in your debut at the Met with this role? 

BH: It was amazing. It was still fresh in my mind as I had done eight performances and one concert performance for the Proms in London. So I spent a lot of time with that role which I already had known because I did it in Amsterdam. It’s not marathon-long but it’s really difficult. We had seven weeks of rehearsal in Amsterdam - two months to work on Troyens in a low-pressure situation. It’s also a role where I can identify with the character and vocally. From a singer’s point of view I could treat it like a comfortable shoe or a glove that you just put on. There’s not one moment I stress over the night before when I’m lying in bed thinking, “Oh man, I hope this part goes well tomorrow.” [Laughs] 

EM: It must take a lot of stamina because of the heaviness of the orchestration and the amount of sustaining that you have to do. In these longer and heavier roles, is stamina important? 

BH: Although Troyens stretches over 5 ½ hours, my role itself is not that long, probably about the same amount of time as in the Duke in Rigoletto, though you probably have more high notes. [Laughs] I timed it out in London. If you pace it right, like an athlete would, you’re warmed up, you give what you need to give, and then you turn it off. You can’t keep your energy up for that hour and a half between leaving the stage in the first part and coming back for the second part. Once you go on in the second part then it’s like starting a real opera. You’re on stage almost the whole time including the ballet and ensembles. That’s the trickiest part, because you’re onstage for a good 45 minutes even when you’re not singing. Through eight performances in London I learned a lot about the role and myself. 

EM: Sounds like you were really primed by the time you got to the Met. 

BH: In London after seven performances of Robert le diable right before I went to the Met, I had been so disciplined about rest. When I arrived at the Met I couldn’t have asked to be in better shape. Or a better place. 

EM: Is there any special challenge in learning and performing such infrequently done roles as Robert le diable, Edgar and L’Africaine

BH: Robert was really difficult and tricky. When Covent Garden came to me they said to take six months and learn it and make a decision to do it or not. With a major house like that it was a luxury. I took it to my teacher and he said, “You can do this, but I’m afraid you might get pigeonholed in the ‘freak’ tenor repertoire, and that would be a shame because there are other things you can do.” I decided to just go for it. What makes it difficult is you have to get three or four really top-notch singers, two different kinds of sopranos, and a bass with a two-octave range, and adequate rehearsal time. That’s the biggest reason why it doesn’t get done. L’Africaine is probably a little bit easier. It’s not as long as Robert le diable and probbly doesn’t require the same amount of voices. People gripe about Meyerbeer and say it’s very stylized. That may be true in some ways but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be done. There was a time when Rossini was not being done so much at the big theaters. 

EM: Is there any German repertoire in your future? 

BH: I’m probably going to do a Meistersinger in about three years. Of the German roles this one is high, but the character of Walter is a young guy. My voice won’t be ready for the heavy Wagnerian repertoire at that point, but I can sing the prize song with a youthful, beautiful romantic sound as opposed to just being loud. 

EM: And you don’t have a Ring orchestra to sing over. 

BH: Exactly. The other Wagner’s are equally high but brutal. If I get there, fine. If not… It’s hard to say what your voice is going to do 10 years from now. It’s hard enough to say what your voice is going to do five years from now. Plus there’s all the Italian repertoire, which lies a bit higher. For me right now the higher I go the more comfortable it is, and I think the more success it has. As you were saying, in the CD it sounds easy. My manager told me, “Sometimes you just need to look like you’re trying a little bit harder. That’s what makes it exciting from the audience standpoint. The crowd wants to see you sweat a little bit sometimes.” [Laughs]

Photos used by permission of Bryan Hymel
Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Monday, March 16, 2015

“China” Comes to San Diego Opera




By Erica Miner

San Diego Opera has much to celebrate. This week came the announcement that after an exhaustive search, David Bennett had been appointed as the new General and Artistic Director of the company. Then this weekend, in a bold move, SDO premiered a production of John Adams’ most frequently performed opera, Nixon in China

Those of us old enough to remember the actual event in question, Richard M. Nixon’s groundbreaking voyage to China in 1972, watched this “back to the future” version of this historical occurrence on the opera stage with mixed emotions. On one hand, there’s no denying the supreme importance of Nixon’s reopening of relations with the Asian power. Nonetheless, having lived through the Nixon years, the less savory memories are not easy to ignore. The opera, after all, premiered in 1987, forty-five years after Nixon went to China but only thirteen years after he resigned in disgrace from the presidency.

That said, the music of Adams brilliantly depicts this account of the beginnings of the transition from “Red communism” to the Communist-based capitalism that thrust China into economic greatness. Further, the production as a whole, heightened by the dazzlingly poetic writing of librettist Alice Goodman, compellingly portrayed that famous handshake felt ‘round the world, which ultimately gave a whole new meaning to the phrase, “détente.” 

Adams’ firmly tonal music proves that timing is everything. The luxury of writing tonal music was not allowed to Leonard Bernstein in the mid-twentieth century; he was composing at a time when, according to Bernstein’s daughter Jamie, to be considered a serious composer by those in academia, writing tonally was out of the question. To Adams’ great fortune, at the time he first began to compose, writing serial music was no longer de rigueur. Adams’ characteristically repetitive patterns, though an integral characteristic of the so-called minimalist movement of composition technique, are overlaid with melody, thus creating an auditory vision of China’s surreal atmosphere in the context of true events, which is replicated in music that is entirely tonal. 

The production, designed by Allen Moyer and marking the directing debut of James Robinson, smartly portrayed the divergence between east and west and American vs. Asian, contrasting the diplomacy of heavy lifters Kissinger and Chou-En Lai with the niceties between Chairman Mao and President Nixon. From the moment the “Spirit of ‘76” (or perhaps more appropriately, the “Spirit of ‘72”) lands on the runway, the music reflects both the spectacle and the bizarre aspects of the events in question, and the stylized but effective direction keeps the contrast between pageantry and intimate moments believable and real. 

The collaboration of Adams and Goodman is a winner for both soloists and ensembles. Dialogue between the main characters, both in earnest and with the two world leaders’ cryptic jests, is intensified by vigorous musical repetitions, with Mao’s personal Greek chorus repeating his pronouncements in a manner evoking a Chinese Gilbert and Sullivan operetta. 

It can’t have been easy to portray real historical figures so soon after the actual events occurred, by Adams’ music comes off as entirely appropriate for these personages. From the very beginning, Adams’ repetitions in sound enhance Goodman’s luminous language so brilliantly that they become not just words but an evocation of the historical happenings. 

The strong cast of singers worked exceptionally well together. The tessituras, especially for Mao and Madame Mao, were extremely high and taxing, and the sheer power required of all of the soloists felt daunting. Alone and together they gave a formidable performance. 

Baritone Franco Pomponi’s Nixon, his SDO debut, admirably carried the weight that the real character must have felt on his shoulders. Vocally robust and dramatically convincing - he portrayed the ex-president’s mannerisms and gestures down to every detail - Pomponi was a clear audience favorite. His characteristic “Victory” gesture during his curtain call received apt appreciation from them. 

In her SDO debut as Pat Nixon, soprano Maria Kanyova handled the demands of the role with expertise, beautifully negotiating the frequent high notes and providing the amounts of volume needed while maintaining vocal loveliness. Her character portrayal of the obedient yet determined president’s wife was engaging. 

Chad Shelton gave an excellent debut as Mao Tse-Tung. He negotiated with impressive power a fiendish tessitura that might have caused vertigo in another tenor, while portraying Mao’s characteristic quirky humor with great appeal. 

As Madame Mao, Kathleen Kim (http://www.laopus.com/2015/03/kathleen-kim-gets-real-with-madame-mao.html)  dazzled the audience with her pyrotechnics and dramatic command of the Chairman’s strong-willed but devoted wife. From her very first entrance, Kim made her presence known with boldly executed high notes and unflinching gestures.



Chen-ye Yuan, debuting as Mao’s partner in crime Chou En-Lai, provided the perfect foil for Shelton. Chen-ye portrayed his character with subtlety and grace, always with consistently pleasing vocality. Patrick Carfizzi’s debut as Kissinger was well sung, but the role, regrettably, was limited. One would liked to have heard more from him. As Mao’s secretaries, Sarah Castle, Buffy Baggott and Jennifer DeDominici were appropriately officious and sang well, separately and together.

Charles Prestinari’s spectacular chorus was eminently deserving of their solo bow at the beginning of the curtain calls. The writing for chorus was just as difficult as that of the soloists, and these admirable choristers managed to sing the relentless battery of high notes without sounding strained or forced, as well as bring off the staging with both high drama and humor.

The expertise in 21st century operatic repertoire that conductor Joseph Mechavich demonstrated in 2012’s Moby-Dick has surely increased exponentially as portrayed in his rendering of John Adams’ complex score. Mechavich showed great command and sensitivity throughout, both controlling and supporting the orchestra in their task of performing parts that were most intricate and difficult.

Debut director Robinson’s staging was creative, unusual, and perfectly fitting for the out of the ordinary situation in which the characters find themselves. His keen insights into the idiosyncrasies and foibles of this cast of eccentrics came off as appropriately oddball yet true-to-life.

The choreography of Seán Curran, assisted by Nora Brickman, was one of the highlights of the evening. Though closely reflecting the original event’s Chinese extravaganza, the dance presentation in Act 2 was dramatic and audacious and performed with great virtuosity: a true example of high art, technically and interpretatively.

Paul Palazzo’s stunning lighting, almost a character in and of itself, played a huge part in the success of the production. Especially effective were the characters’ shadows juxtaposed against the audacious but appropriate red of Moyer’s  dramatic backdrops. The clever use of TV monitors added to the overall bold effect, tying together the splendid set design, lighting and stage direction.

Nixon in China was a gutsy choice for this company. Whether the historical triumph it portrays was Nixon’s or Mao’s will always remain in question. Election year politics have only grown more obvious in the last forty years, and Mao’s unanswered query posed at the end of the opera may or may not be answered by history.

What was clear on this opening night was the triumph that was San Diego Opera. As it must have been a privilege for those journalists who were allowed to cover Nixon’s world changing voyage to China, so it was for those who covered this auspicious SDO premiere. Nixon’s sincere thanks to everyone for doing their part in this momentous occasion superbly symbolizes SDO’s inspirational teamwork and solidarity.

Performances continue through Mar. 22. (http://www.sdopera.com/Operas/Nixon)



Photos used by permission of Ken Howard/ San Diego Opera

Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com




Monday, March 9, 2015

LA Master Chorale and Chamber Choir perform two world premieres

By Douglas Neslund


If you are an aficionado of beautiful and sometimes breathtaking choral music, and were fortunate to be in attendance at Walt Disney Concert Hall Sunday evening, you were in high clover.

Besides our world-best Los Angeles Master Chorale, we were treated with a second choir of excellence, Chung Uk Lee’s Los Angeles Chamber Choir, which is celebrating its tenth anniversary. More on this Korean-American ensemble later.


Virtually nothing choral dazzles more than Eric Whitacre’s “Her Sacred Spirit Soars” out of the throats of 112 Master Chorale singers and Maestro Grant Gershon’s leadership. A musical flower that opens and closes is the visual that might accompany this beautiful work dedicated to Saint Cecelia, the patron of music. From a simple third interval that expands and grows and envelopes and surrounds an audience, only to dissolve itself back to that simple third interval, and that, again and again. No dynamic is left out. No note within human vocal range is overlooked. But it is the exquisite tapestry wrought by an American (now living in London) that is so awesome when sung by these professional musicians.



Johannes Brahms might have suffered just a bit by comparison as one journeyed back through time to the Late Romantic, and that, in the hands of a master choral composer enamored with formula counterpoint so well spun, one scarcely noticed. Prior to the downbeat, Maestro Gershon had alerted the audience to the final “Amen” as truly inspired, and it was. One of the movements of the Brahms’ Fest- und Gedenksprüche (Opus 109) dealt with the issue distilled into the phrase “A house divided cannot stand,” perhaps an appropriate lesson for our time. Brahms utilized the same double-chorus arrangement as the Whitacre, and produced variety by sharing sections of the music: men’s voices only, women’s voices only, with themes tossed from one chorus to the other and back in 19th century complexity.

Los Angeles Chamber Choir

The first of two world premiere performances on the evening’s rich menu was Nackkum Paik’s “Succession” – a musical setting for three choirs relating the story of the Old Testament prophet Elijah’s being taken supernaturally from earth, with Elisha inheriting his teacher’s prophetic powers. Soprano Sunmi Shin and baritone Chung Uk Lee provided impressive solos as the choirs mastered difficult non-harmonic chordal blocks enhanced with Korean idiomatic sounds and rhythms, including plucked piano strings by Master Chorale keyboard artist Lisa Edwards to simulate the ancient Korean gayageum and a pair of percussion parts played by Theresa Dimond and John Wakefield.


Ms. Paik likens the biblical parable to the first Korean settlers in America, passing their culture along to the next generation born in this country, the traditional melody of “Arirang” woven into the final measures as imprimatur. Imagine the sound that 42 Chamber Choristers, in addition to the Master Chorale’s 112, could make. Ms. Paik’s compositional gifts are unique and powerful.


After coffee, the evening belonged to the Master Chorale’s own Shawn Kirchner, in his compositional denouement as beneficiary of a three-year composer-in-residence provided courtesy of the Swan Family. Mr. Kirchner has written and arranged individual pieces for the Master Chorale that proved time and again his knowledge of the choral and vocal instrument as well as innate musicianship. This time, he showed us that his gifts extend into the instrumental realm as well, with the top-drawer Master Chorale Orchestra strings and two harps, led by Concertmaster Roger Wilkie, assembled by the ever-reliable Steve Scharf, in his final measures as orchestra contractor, manager and second fiddle at the end of the current season.

Shawn Kirchner

Completed just in time for concert preparation, Mr. Kirchner’s “Songs of Ascent” are a series of seven movements drawn from the Psalms of David with the focus being songs sung by pilgrims as they ascend the steps of the Temple at Jerusalem - (Psalms 132, 122, 127, 128, 131, 130, 121, 133, 134) with a beautiful orchestra interlude over the words “In my distress, I cried unto the Lord” from Psalm 120. Baritone David Castillo represented a penitent King David in several short solos, with soprano Suzanne Waters mastering wide ranges in her challenging solo role.

In the preconcert chat, Mr. Kirchner asked the audience to “please like” a fugue that gave structure to the third movement, “Except the Lord build the house.” He needn’t have worried: the fugue was well written and performed, comprised of jaunty syncopation and angular choral lines within a traditional A-B-A form. Unlike his earlier Plath songs that were meant for only the top drawer of the world’s premiere choral ensembles, “Songs of Ascent” are accessible to very good amateur choirs as well. 

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Photos courtesy of Steve Cohn, Alex Berlliner and Russell Scoffin

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Kathleen Kim Gets “Real” with Madame Mao



By Erica Miner

After garnering kudos and winning fans from her debut portraying Oscar last season in Verdi’s A Masked Ball at San Diego Opera, Korean-American soprano Kathleen Kim returns as the power-hungry Chiang Ch’ing, aka Madame Mao, in this season’s John Adams drama Nixon in China. Here, Kim discusses her deep love of opera, the challenges and rewards of singing true-to-life characters, and the roles she loves most. 

EM: Was Oscar fun to do? 

KK: Yes. I do that role a lot. Actually after this I have to do another Oscar. [Laughs] 

EM:Where else have you done Nixon in China

KK: The first time was in Chicago, with Chicago Opera Theatre. After that I did it at the Met, then BBC proms, semi-staged. This is my fourth. 

EM: So you know the role by now. 

KK: [Laughs] Oh yes. 

EM: When did you first want to sing opera? 

KK: I grew up in Korea. When I was a child in the children’s chorus, for the National Broadcast Company, I was on TV every Sunday, singing, and I loved it. I’ve never stopped singing since then. I trained as a classical singer in school. Then I came to the States, to the Manhattan School of Music.

EM: That must have been quite a change for you. New York is not an easy place to live, even if you grow up in the States. 

KK: New York is a special place, as you know. It was new and exciting. I lived with friends, so it wasn’t too bad. 

EM: How did you do transition from choral to solo singing? 

KK: In Korea I saw Rigoletto, my first opera. I just fell in love with it. At Manhattan School there wasn’t much opportunity to do opera. I was young, and it was very competitive. I saw many operas at the Met, and after I graduated with my Masters I did so many auditions. Finally I was accepted as a chorus member in a small opera company in New Jersey. Somehow I got the part of the first boy spirit in Magic Flute. That was my first ever opera experience. 

EM: Starting with Mozart. Not so bad. 

KK: [Laughs] Yes. After that, more auditioning, then I got into Chicago Opera Young Arts Program. After that my career took off. 

EM: Did you have a mentor to guide you, to help to get over that hump of getting into professional opera singing? 

KK: I met my Korean teacher, Fa Park, when I was very young. He was very important for me. He taught me the most important basic techniques of singing and helped me fix my major problems and bad habits. After that, all the experiences, all the stages where I sang, have been my mentors. I worked with many famous voice teachers and coaches. Every one helped me a lot. 

EM: Tell me about your character, Madame Mao, or Chiang Ch’ing. It’s a very different role from Oscar.

KK: [Laughs] Very different.

EM: How was it for you to learn that after doing Oscar, and to sing John Adams versus Verdi? 

KK: This role of Madame Mao is very special for me. It was one of my first major roles I learned completely and performed. I was able to do it at the Met, because when I was doing it in Chicago, John Adams came to see it, and at the Met he conducted it. When I learned it the first time it was very hard and it took me a long time. [Laughs] If you see the score the tempo changes, like, almost every two measures, and you need full concentration. I don’t have perfect pitch, so some of the intervals are very hard. When I heard it for the first time I thought, “I don’t think I can do it.” [Laughs] But after I listened to it with orchestra and everybody, I just fell in love with this piece. From beginning to end there’s not a single part you can miss. I think it’s a masterpiece, all the parts. The chorus part is especially important. Whenever I hear the opening of the chorus it gives me goose bumps. 

EM: I’ve read that you have a special aria in the second act. 

KK: Have you heard it? Once you hear it, it will stick in your head. For a long time. [Laughs] It requires so many high notes, not just high notes, but screaming high notes. So many words, not very pretty singing. John Adams told me that when he was writing it he was thinking about the Queen of the Night. This one is not as high but I do have a high D. The whole tessitura is very high and intense, especially my first note. It starts with anger. She’s very angry and scary, screaming at the dancers. I need all my energy, all the emotions, I have to give everything. It’s completely different from singing Oscar. 

EM: It’s also in English, not an easy language to sing. 

KK: No, it’s not, compared to Italian, but it’s just so beautiful. In Act Three I show a different part of Madame Mao. She’s known as a person responsible for killing so many people during the Chinese cultural revolution, but she was also a woman, and she wanted to be loved by Mao. That’s what Act Three is about, thinking and talking about our past and what we have done. She sings a different type of music, very beautiful, very melodic. It’s an amazing role. I love singing it. 

EM: It sounds like you explore many different aspects of her character, from angry to loving to being honorable and very needy. 

KK: Yes, all the human emotions. With Oscar I cannot show so many. First of all I have to play a boy [Laughs] so that’s very difficult. And he’s more like a king’s best buddy, young and very naïve. It’s fun to play, but I also love singing roles with more emotions. 

EM: What is it like for you to bring to life a real person from recent history that happened before you were born, compared to, say, Oscar? 

KK: I think in a way it’s easier to play a living person, because I have a source to create her image. I read a novel about Madame Mao, and thanks to YouTube I could see her actual trial. With Oscar I have to create a fictional character. 

EM: What about vocally? 

KK: Oscar is not an easy role. It has high, sustained notes, and you need the volume to sing with ensembles. It requires a more specific voice than Madame Mao. 

EM: What’s going on emotionally and character wise? 

KK: As the wife of Mao Tse-Tung, everybody listens to me. I speak according to this red book. So, just obey me. [Laughs] 

EM: Interesting that he actually writes that aria for that character. 

KK: It’s the end of Act Two, and it finishes with a high note and the chorus, and the last words are, “the book.” It’s very strong. I remember counting the number of times I say those two words. It’s more than 40. 

EM: Just listen and obey. No doubt whatsoever. How would you relate her character to Pat Nixon, who was meek by comparison? 

KK: Madame Mao is in charge because her husband gave her power. She obeys him but also wants to prove herself to him. It’s very important to play the role of his wife, but she doesn’t want to be just a housewife, she wants to be needed by him, to have the support and status of the Communist Party. And she has to have the power to survive. 

EM: Of the roles you’ve sung so far, which are your favorites, and which would you like to sing that you haven’t yet sung? 

KK: My favorite role has been Lucia di Lammermoor. It’s so fun to sing. I’ve only done one production so far, but I loved it. It’s incredible music, and drama and acting. I’d love to do it more. My roles have been very specific. I want to play a real woman, not a crazy one like Madame Mao [Laughs]… Or a doll. More of the emotional characters, everyday people. 

EM: Really? Olympia seems like such a fun role. 

KK: It is, but I’m interested in doing something more dramatic, more serious - Gilda, Juliette, the Bel canto roles like La Sonnambula

EM: Now there’s a role you can sink your teeth into! Is there something you’d like to add before we wrap up? 

KK: There’s a story that happened to me at the opera once. The person who was in charge of scheduling wanted to call me to the stage, so he went down to the switchboard and asked, “Could you please announce for Kathleen Kim to call the rehearsal department?” The switchboard person said, “You mean the one who sings Madame Mao? I saw her on YouTube. She seems really scary. I need to meet her.” [Laughs] I’m not that mean, I’m a really nice person. 

EM: Isn’t that one of the great things about Opera, to get up on stage and portray a character that’s so completely different from your own, and then fool people? 

KK: Yes! 

EM: Kathleen, thank you, this has been wonderful. I wish you all the luck in Nixon and anything you do in the future. What’s coming up for you next after San Diego? 

KK: I’m going to Brussels to do another Oscar. 

EM: Clearly it’s time for you to start spreading your wings. 

KK: Thank you so much. 

EM: It’s my pleasure. 

Photos used by permission of San Diego Opera 

Erica Miner can be contacted at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Shaham Surmounts the Challenge of Unaccompanied Bach



By Erica Miner

For a violinist, no greater or more pleasurable challenge exists than to tackle the six unaccompanied Bach Sonatas and Partitas. Ordinarily a recitalist will perform one of these magnificent works in a single program. 

As part of his Solo Bach Project, which takes him to some of the country’s leading venues, award winning violinist Gil Shaham pushed the envelope by programming three of these works in one evening at the La Jolla Music Society (http://ljms.org): Sonata No. 3 in C major; Partita No. 3 in E major; and Partita No. 2 in D minor, which includes the glorious Chaconne. This particular weekend is well timed for the E major Partita: the San Diego Symphony performs Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s Upbeat!, which pays homage to the partita’s Preludio. Bach himself brilliantly captured said Preludio (though in the key of D major) in his Cantata No. 29. He certainly knew how best to make use of his expertise. 

As did Mr. Shaham. The extent of Bach’s proficiency on the violin was never clearly chronicled, but Shaham’s deftness and skill were very much in evidence as he powered his way through these fiendishly difficult works, in which there is absolutely nowhere to hide: the player is responsible for all the voices, from melodic to inner to bass line. Shaham demonstrated that a single instrument with but four strings and a bow is capable of replicating an entire string quartet’s voicing and sonorities. 

One of the keys to producing these qualities in unaccompanied Bach is in fact the use of the bow - which in its modern incarnation does not entirely resemble the arched bow of Bach’s time - to produce sound, not only drawing it from individual strings but from two, three or all four simultaneously. In this sense “unaccompanied” more accurately means, “accompanying oneself.” Shaham proved this feat eminently achievable and, in his skilled hands, demonstrated that the solo violin needs no accompanying aid from a piano, or even an orchestra. 

His choice of Partita No. 3 as an opener was perfect. He engaged the audience’s attention immediately by establishing intense eye contact while simultaneously executing the dazzling string crossings and relentless barrage of never-ending sixteenth notes. Shaham performed these with dexterity and nimbleness at breakneck speed without sacrificing the beauty or quality of the tone. 

Shaham’s interpretations of these unaccompanied works have been termed “original.” Certainly his somewhat idiosyncratic interpretations were in evidence in the dance movements of both partitas, where the violinist cleverly incorporated a generous sprinkling of carefully calculated ornamentation that gave the impression of being improvised. Added to the highly stylized 17th century phrasing, the embellishments contributed a great deal of stylistic pizazz to the overall dancelike character of those pieces. 

In the three unaccompanied sonatas, each Adagio and fugue becomes progressively more difficult, and of these the opening Adagio of Sonata No. 3 is the longest, most arduous and most problematic. The intricacies and juxtapositions of the fingerings and the compound undulating of the chords require a monumental command of both bow and left hand. Shaham the artist was in his element, if a bit rushed, in this Adagio, and in the segue fugue movement, which also is of extended length. He articulated the cascades of notes and chords with great clarity. He expertly executed the multiple voices, bringing out melody and counter melody distinctly, and using his superb bow arm to cluster together the multiple voices of the fiendishly difficult chord structure: a nigh impossible feat with a modern bow. 

Perhaps the true mettle of any violinist is being able to master and perform the Chaconne. As effective as the E major Preludio is as an opener, the Chaconne is equally winning as an ending. Even more challenging is to perform the four dance movements preceding it without losing the momentum required to sustain the technical demands of the final movement, which can easily stand on its own, not to mention the profound emotion contained within its expressive melody and harmonic changes.

The violinist’s energy never flagged during the entire work. The dance movements meshed into each other yet remained distinctly individual, leading up to the ultimate long-awaited Chaconne. Performed with conviction, if unusually fast, Shaham made the piece his own, successfully tackling its technical challenges. 

Shaham’s courage in assembling these three stupendous works for one program paid off generously, earning the delight and admiration of a captivated audience.

Photos used by permission of Luke Ratray

Erica Miner can be contacted at eminer5472@gmail.com

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Richard Goode “Sings” - On the Piano



By Erica Miner

Known for the depth of expression, expansiveness and introspection in his playing, pianist Richard Goode has won the admiration of discriminating classical music aficionados worldwide. On Feb. 27 he will make his San Diego Symphony debut in the lesser known but powerfully expressive Mozart Piano Concerto No. 25. In this interview via phone from his home in New York, Goode reveals details about his musical journey, his belief in the importance of musical education, and his views on vocality in Mozart.

EM: After many decades of being a huge devotee of your work, I’m absolutely delighted to interview you. Did you grow up in a musical family? How did you come to play piano?

RG: We didn’t hear much classical music in my house. My father sort of wanted me to become a violinist, in fact, but he started me on the piano. I never got past it.

EM: When did you decide music was “it” for you?

RG: I didn’t have any clear feelings about what I wanted to do until age eight or nine. My first teacher was Elvira Szigeti, who was married to the uncle of (violinist) Joseph Szigeti, and lived five blocks from us in the Bronx. She was a very encouraging teacher. She didn’t play the piano anymore herself, she had arthritis, but was a contemporary of Bartòk at the Budapest Academy, and was a very inspiring person. Unfortunately she retired three years after I started studying with her but she gave me a start.

EM: You had a number of very prominent teachers after that. Was any one of those more influential than the others?

RG: My first serious teacher was Claude Frank. He was a Schnabel student and a wonderful pianist. I had lessons with him for a couple of years. That was my first acquaintance with wonderful piano playing because my first teacher didn’t play the piano at all. After that I studied with Nadia Reisenberg, who was a wonderful teacher, but my main musical influence was (Rudolf) Serkin. I first heard him when I was eleven or twelve. He was the one who had recommended Claude Frank as a teacher, and he was my musical idol for all those years. I went to Marlboro for the first time when I was fourteen. Then I went to Curtis and studied with him privately along with Mieczyslaw Horszowski, who was also a great influence.

EM: You were the first American-born pianist to record the complete Beethoven piano Sonatas. Leonard Bernstein also encouraged your solo and concerto playing. Do you feel the most passion for sonatas, or for chamber music, or concertos? How do you feel about performing in all these aspects? Do you have a different kind of love for each one, or more of a love for one than the other? Or is that a fair question?

RG: It’s a good question. My main feeling, the ground feeling that I have, is that all music is one. Music is music. You’re striving for the same kinds of things in playing it. In the singing line, in listening to harmony and making rhythm clear and alive, following the narrative progress of the piece, no matter whether you’re playing a Beethoven sonata or Mozart concerto or Schubert song or Fauré trio. Perhaps at this point what most satisfies me is playing solo recitals, because I can make all the decisions myself and argue with myself and nobody else. [Laughs] Perhaps also playing lieder accompaniments. Playing songs. I love the time scale of songs, the fact that the drama happens in such a short time. Every moment counts. Every note counts. In some way I feel closer to wanting to become a singer than anything else, to be a singer on the piano. And this vicariously satisfies my love of singing. I was singing as a child, imitating what I heard on the radio. That’s probably why my father had the idea of me becoming a musician.

EM: I’m glad to hear you say that. One of the things I admire most about your playing is how it sings on the instrument. Why did you choose this particular concerto?

RG: Many reasons. It was the very first Mozart concerto I played in public, and it’s a favorite of mine, which goes along with the harmonic wonders that happen in it. It has such a great scope and breadth, a bit like the Jupiter Symphony perhaps, but the lyrical moments and thematic things that happen are that much more wonderful because they’re against this wonderful C-major background. And absolutely among the greatest moments that I know in Mozart and maybe in music. What happens in the middle of the last movement - it suddenly breaks into the dance like motion, and you have this marvelous melody that’s traded between the piano and the winds, one of the great moments, I think. And the slow movement - one of Mozart’s most formally perfect and satisfying, the way it comes in between these two massive movements and makes a kind of serene counterpoint to everything else in the concerto. Also the fact that it was not very well known. I believe after its first performance by Mozart nobody performed it for something like 150 years.

EM: Oh my goodness.

RG: It didn’t have the initial charm and spontaneous lyricism of some of the other concerti, although it has wonderful themes. But there is something remarkable, and I think the first movement may be one of the grandest he ever wrote. It was a great favorite of Beethoven, who was stealing from it. [Laughs] For me it’s fascinating. At a certain point at the beginning of the development of the slow movement there’s this [Sings] rhythm that he uses throughout, sort of like the Marseillaise. Then the piano changes key going into E minor, exactly what Beethoven does at the same point in a slightly different way in the fourth concerto. It’s really an obvious reference to the great forebear. Absolutely wonderful how Beethoven makes the reference and also makes his own variation just at that point.

EM: Interesting that you spoke of “most perfect” in the context of Mozart, who was so perfect in every way. Also that you mentioned drama and dramatic, considering it was written about the same time as he was writing Don Giovanni. Would it be too much of a stretch to say there’s an operatic aspect to this concerto?

RG: Not at all. Mozart’s writing, first of all, is almost always vocal, and of course innately dramatic. The second movement has passages that are plainly operatic in inspiration. The middle of the movement has these huge leaps in the piano part against the rising harmonic orchestra sequence. I’m fairly certain that those start with the idea of the voice going from the deep register to the high register. I think in this particular case they’re meant to start that way and then the ornamental way in which singer might ornament these stretches. So the operatic element definitely is there. But you can see it in practically everything of Mozart. In a certain period, when Mozart wrote most of his famous concerti, 1784 or so, you see it in melodies that sound like arias from Figaro. That was also the period when he started writing elaborate parts for woodwinds, which of course are the singers of the orchestra. In these concerti you have the chamber music trading of motives and vocal parts between piano and winds, which are constant from around that period. So this is a whole enrichment of the idea of the concerto that never happened before. It only happened in Mozart from around that period.

EM: I admit this concerto is my least familiar Mozart, so it’s going to be fantastic to listen to it in that context. I’ve seen videos of your teaching as well. How important is that outreach for you?

RG: I love teaching. It’s very important to me, a part of furthering my musical understanding. Having musical dialogs with people, studying music through listening to it, getting new ideas about it and hearing how differently people play is fascinating to me. I’ve found master classes extremely stimulating - the challenge of hearing somebody give a performance, how to approach the possibilities of the person and that music at that time. What can one say that’s helpful, enlightening, and interesting. There are so many avenues of approach to teaching. Each person presents you with a set of different possibilities

EM: You have played contemporary music but I think most people consider you a classicist. Do you enjoy playing contemporary works?

RG: When I play, my heart is in the 18th and 19th centuries. Some forays into the 20th but tonality has a very strong hold on me. Despite some exceptions, for example the music of  George Perle, which I’ve recorded, and a few others, almost everything I feel strongly drawn to is in the tonal idiom. I do listen to contemporary music, but as far as being an advocate for young composers I have been a total loss. I’m sorry about it, but on the other hand I also believe you should play the music you can deeply feel until you can do justice to it.

EM: I totally agree, and you are so brilliant at it, so why not. Just one more thing. I’m curious about your “signature” hat.

RG: Actually it’s very recent. It was a Panama that I took a liking to that I bought for €15 in Walesa. I think I had one photo shoot with that hat. I had no idea it became a signature. It’s not one that I had before and I’m not sure I’ll have it again. But as signatures go it’s quite nice.

EM: It is indeed. Thank you so very much for spending this time with me.

RG: Very nice to talk to you, Erica.

EM: My pleasure.

Photos used by permission of Sasha Gusov

Erica Miner can be contacted at eminer5472@gmail.com