Thursday, September 21, 2017

Bel canto and Scottish battlements at Forest Lawn


Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Pacific Opera Project, Forest Lawn, Glendale

The assembled company in the closing stages of Lucia di Lammermoor at Forest Lawn.

LA’s premier necropolis seemed an unlikely venue for this late-summer outdoor production from Pacific Opera Project (POP), but the terrace on Forest Lawn’s summit, after a maybe-contemplative walk across the marble flagstones between the museum and the cathedral, turned out to be a near-ideal setting for Donizetti’s blood-boltered melodramatic tragedy. Even the terrace’s strategic orientation westward added to the effect, with the setting sun’s salmon-pink aura deepening to dark grey behind the distant mountains, and throwing POP’s splendidly battlemented set into sharp relief (no pretentious nonsense here about making the opera “relevant” by giving it some pointless contemporary transplant!). 

Donizetti in 1835, at the time of composing
Lucia di Lammermoor (artist unknown).
The shape of the terrace necessitated the orchestra being placed to the far left rather than centrally between stage and audience, virtually out of the latter’s sight but fortunately not (quite) out of earshot. Indeed this position, immediately in front of the boundary wall, may have helped in throwing their sound forward a little but also, I fear, gave the conductor Isaac Selya a crick in the neck from having constantly to turn his head sharp right in order to keep contact between singers and players. 

Of course, there is an aural price to pay for an out-door setting, and that’s the total lack of resonance. However, the ear adjusted pretty quickly to the etiolated orchestral sound, and I for one found letting nature take its course far preferable to any sort of crude amplification. Doubtless due to geography and economics, the string strength was chamber-sized, but Donizetti’s full complement of woodwind, horns, trumpets, harp, and percussion were, I think, present. Interestingly, the timpani seemed to be the small historical kind that have a much lighter, dryer sound than modern instruments, so that the opera’s opening – two pianissimo drum taps – was virtually inaudible. Indeed I suspect that much of the audience, still preoccupied with the wine and nibbles POP generously included in the table seating price, didn’t realize the opera had actually begun. 

l: Daniel Scofield (Enrico);
r: Robert Norman (Normanno).
Having been to similar open-air performances where conviviality definitely trumped attention, I had some concern about audience response, but need not have worried. Donizzeti’s dramatic instinct brings his principal villain into the action very quickly, and baritone Daniel Scofield as Lucia’s duplicitous, vengeful, and manipulative brother Enrico duly seized the moment, and roared and snarled his beard-thrusting, tam o’shanter-quivering, kilt-swirling way into the role, stilling audience murmurs and cellphone-checking by sheer force of personality. 

Donizetti is equally canny in holding back the appearance of his titular heroine to the first Act’s second scene, when the main bones of the plot have already been made clear previously through exchanges between Enrico, Normanno his sidekick heavy (Robert Norman, tenor, equally villainous with eye patch), and Raimondo the family chaplain (Nicholas Boragno, bass-baritone, making the best of this rather thankless I-just-want-everyone-to-get-on-together part). 

l: Danielle Bond (Alisa); centre: Jamie Chamberlin (Lucia); r: Silent ghost.
The demanding title role was shared across POP’s five performances by sopranos Bevin Hill and Jamie Chamberlin, who in the final evening that we enjoyed was fully up to its considerable demands, once a slight tendency early on to flounce had disappeared as the character’s helplessness vulnerability grew. Her vocal credentials of purity of tone and coloratura skill that never went over the top into self-indulgence were immediately apparent in her first long duet with her handmaid Alisa (Danielle Bond, mezzo-soprano, in the other rather thankless role), where Josh Shaw’s production also included the fine imaginative touch (above) of bringing on the ghost of a girl killed on the very same spot by a jealous ancestor, clearly visible to Lucia but not to Alisa, and made up like a fugitive from “The Ring” – all lank black hair, ashen limbs, and hollowed-out eyes. 

Jamie Chamberlin (Lucia)
nails the "Mad Scene".
After this exchange and the departure of both handmaid and ghost, the other principal, the equally doomed Edgardo, subject of Lucia’s passion and Enrico’s hate, appears. He was sung by Nathan Granner, tenor, and proved very much an equal partner with Ms Chamberlin in their long love-duet. Both singers really came into their own in the final act, however. 

It was a pity that time constraint necessitated the omission of the first scene of Act 3, where Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel. This made somewhat precipitate the onset of Lucia’s famous “Mad Scene” at the height of the festivities to “celebrate” her forced marriage to hapless stooge Arturo (William Grundler, tenor, a little thin of voice, maybe designedly so). However, when she appeared (left) at the literal high-point of the set, bloody-robed and holding the dagger with which she has just dispatched her short-lived husband, Ms Chamberlin made the scene equally the real high point vocally and dramatically that it should be. Not the least remarkable aspect was her sotto voce duet with the first flute in the closing moments, voice and instrument in perfect alignment, a tribute not only to singer and player but also to Mr Selya’s baton, holding everything together masterfully. 

Nathan Granner (Edgardo).
After Lucia wafts away amidst the wreckage of the party to die off-stage, accompanied here again by the silent presence of the ghost, the challenge for Mr Granner was considerable in having to refocus the audience’s attention, near the end of a longish evening, on the love-lost Edgardo’s tragic plight. However, he rose to the moment splendidly, though I wonder why the production had his character stabbed by the villainous Normanno rather than his own hand? Maybe this is an alternative tradition in Lucia di Lammermoor performances. 

The opera’s other celebrated high point is Donizetti’s tour-de-force sextet of all the principals apart from Normanno as the extended finale of Act 2. This underlined how beautifully matched all the voices were, with no-one grandstanding but each taking the opportunities for expressivity afforded by the composer (definitely bel canto rather than “can belto”). This scene must be a devil to bring off successfully, with the chorus also needing to be integrated. POP’s not numerous but highly skilled choristers also made the most of their music, and even essayed a bit of Scottish dancing in the scene of marriage celebrations, albeit a little carefully given the shallowness of the stage area. The company should be proud of their achievement, which was enthusiastically applauded and cheered. 


Pacific Opera Project, Forest Lawn, Glendale, 7 p.m., September 17 2017.
Images: Donizetti: Wikimedia Commons; Production photos: Martha Benedict.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Grimsleys and San Diego Opera: All in the Family

Photo: SORS Seattle

INTERVIEW: San Diego Opera

Civic Theatre

On Oct. 14, San Diego Opera’s 2017-2108 season will open with several firsts. Gilbert & Sullivan’s much-loved comedy, The Pirates of Penzance, will be the company’s first performances of English operetta. Perennial SDO favorite bass-baritone Greer Grimsley will share the stage with his real-life wife Luretta Bybee in her SDO debut.

Photo: SORS Seattle
The husband and wife team frequently have performed on stage together, most recently in Seattle Opera’s Flying Dutchman and in Sweeney Todd with Vancouver Opera. The excitement is palpable among San Diego opera lovers to witness this family collaboration in the SDO season opener at the Civic Theatre.

Erica Miner: As always, San Diego is thrilled that you’re coming back, Greer! We can’t get enough of you here. Since singing Scarpia here in Tosca in 2016, what are some of the highlights of your past year and a half?

Greer Grimsley: Oh my gosh. Right after the Tosca, Luretta and I were in Glimmerglass. Then I did the Finnish production of Götz Friedrich’s Walküre in Japan, went to Minnesota to do their new Rheingold and Siegfried. And I was at the Met. Now we’re home in New Orleans. 

EM: I recently interviewed Matthew Shilvock at San Francisco Opera. They’re so excited about your singing Wotan in their Ring next season. 

GG: I’m so excited about that. I’ve been friends with Francesca (Zambello) since we were both starting in the business. I am excited to take on her Ring. Though San Francisco is such a terrible place to be [Laughs]. 

EM: That Ring is going to be a major happening. 

GG: I think so. Oddly enough, a good friend of mine, Falk Struckmann, is going to be the Alberich. We first met at the beginning of our careers in Basel, Switzerland. I haven’t seen him much between then and when we saw each other at the Met for Fidelio. It was like very little time had passed. It was nice to be connected again. We’re going to be working together in San Francisco and Dallas, for Dutchman

EM: You and Luretta recently celebrated your 30th wedding anniversary. Congratulations! 

GG: Thank you! 

EM: Did you start performing together before or after you married? 

Luretta Bybee: We met on a tour with Houston Grand Opera, which used to be the old Texas Opera Theatre tour. He was singing Escamillo, I was singing Carmen. Then we synchronistically ended up on the Peter Brook Carmen tour. It was a real luxury to spend our first two years together working, a way to really get to know each other. It actually started 32 years ago. Most of that time, we were performing. 

EM: And somehow you found time to get married. 

GG: [Laughs] Two years after. 

LB: We got married in Central City, when I was performing Suzuki. 

EM: You’re performing Suzuki, and dealing with a married guy who leaves his first wife and marries someone else. That’s an interesting scenario. 

LB: I had been married once before, and Greer twice before. We were pretty much free and easy at that point and had no plans to get married in Central City. But the late conductor Mark Flint took it up on himself to plan our wedding, so we got married while we were there. 

EM: A conductor conducted your wedding, that’s amazing. 

GG: He actually ended up playing the organ for us in the service. In Central City. there’s a sweet old church right across the street from the opera house. That’s where we committed the deed. 

EM: A lovely story. Do you remember what you performed together right after you got married? 

LB: I went right back into performances at Central City. Where were we after that? I think I went to Miami to do Rossini’s Saliero. Greer was still kicking around, not getting much attention. I’m running my rear off trying to make ends meet. And people were trying to figure out what to do with him. 

GG: [Laughs.] I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. 

EM: Looks like you got some inspiration and luck from Luretta. 

GG: Of course. 

LB: And a lotta help! 

GG: [Laughs.] That’s true. 

EM: That’s what partnerships are about. As for Pirates, this will be the first time San Diego operagoers will see you two perform together on stage. What were some of your previous joint performances?

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
LB: We did lots of Carmens. 

GG: Le Nozze di Figaro. I did the Count, she did Cherubino. 

LB: Tales of Hoffmann. We were in the Ring together in Seattle every time. 

GG: Dutchman

EM: Yes, I remember it well. 

GG: Early on, Luretta was singing the Page in Salome. I just happened to be there with her and they lost their Second Soldier. I learned it very quickly and jumped in, so we’ve done that together as well [Laughs]. 

LB: And Sweeney Todd

EM: Re Salome, while I was at Santa Fe I spoke with their wig director David Zimmerman. Do you know that your head is still there? 

GG: [Laughs] Yes, I do! From when I was John the Baptist. 

LB: We also have one of his heads in a cabinet in the garage, the first one that was ever made. 

GG: [Laughs] You would call it a Paleo head, from the time where they actually put plaster on your face. I had to hold my neck with a towel, in a chair, two straws in my nose, while they applied the plaster to my face to make a mold. It’s seen better days, but I guess in a pinch it could be used [Laughs]. 

LB: I remember having to send it overseas to him for some production. It was wrapped up and I had to declare what it was. It was sort of bizarre trying to explain it to the Fedex guy, “This is my husband’s head for a show.” 

EM: They’ve made movies with that theme. 

LB, GG: [Laugh.] 

EM: Your head is floating around the world. Not many people have that distinction. What are some of the pros and cons of sharing the stage with your spouse?

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
LB: I’ve been wondering about that for lots of years. There are cons that people would expect from couples sharing the limelight - egos - but for us there’s never been an egotistical issue, maybe because in a way we’ve been on different trajectories. I love the theatre and I’ve had plenty of time singing title roles. After (daughter) Emma was born, I lost the look for the high pressure of being the person that the show rode on. So, I’m really happy doing secondary roles, which keeps my foot in the door. I’m also in my 15th year of teaching, and am doing a blog. We never butted heads like a lot of our colleagues. Greer, when he’s under pressure doing big parts, doesn’t carry a lot of baggage with it. I remember reading the book about George London, how he would check into a hotel the night before singing Wotan. The family would have to stay away. It was set up early on when we had Emma, and Greer was doing Giovanni, that if he needed to he got up in the middle of the night, rocked her or whatever. So there’s never been this “mystique” around what’s necessary for performing. We tend to perform best when we keep things as normal as possible. 

GG: And oddly enough I’ve never found a downside performing with Luretta. That’s through all situations. No matter what, if there was something we were in need of, advice, whatever, there was never any ego in the way. We always knew we were operating for each other’s best interests. The trust factor is also a part of performing together. Knowing there’s someone there who knows you so well that you trust, who’s also reassuring. 

LB: It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but if you’re really invested in the other person’s well-being and success, all you want to do is celebrate it. It doesn’t pose any problem, really. 

EM: It’s a testament to how balanced you are, as people, as personalities. It’s also the key to a successful partnership offstage. It’s not easy when you’re opera singers, but you seem to come to it from a very balanced perspective. I admire that. 

LB: Don’t get me wrong, we’ve definitely had our ups and downs. 

GG: [Laughs.] 

LB: But we’re on the same page about looking for balance in our lives. That helps a lot. 

EM: Luretta, you’ve performed in a number of lighter operatic works, notably H.M.S. Pinafore and A Little Night Music. For you, Greer, this seems to be more of a departure from your heavier repertoire. What is the appeal for you in works like Pirates?

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
GG: The appeal is being together. Early on in my career I did Pirates, Carousel, Desert Song. Student Prince I did several times, also Merry Widow. I think I came to opera because I loved music theatre. I studied classically because I wanted to have an edge in the theatre, and fell in love with opera. But I do love the music theatre genre. I look at it as another facet of performing possibility. When the Pirates opportunity came up in San Diego, we were scheduled to do it with Emma as well. It was originally supposed to be the three of us. That was the big draw, to do this together. Then Emma was employed to do the Phantom of the Opera tour, an opportunity for her that we all agreed was not to be missed. She’s exploring all facets of performing as far as singing is concerned. I think it’s different now for young singers than it was for us. I hope we’ll get away from being segregated as classical artists vs. musical theatre, and it will have a cross-pollination again. 

LB: Also, we love San Diego. I did a Young Artists program there before I really got started. Then I came back for two seasons – Mrs. Sedley in Peter Grimes and one of the dancers in Merry Widow. I’ve made a lot of friends there. We just really like San Diego. 

EM: What’s not to like? 

LB: In roles where it’s just a romp and there’s not a huge amount of pressure, you can really just sit and enjoy a sunset… and we love both the director (Seán Curran) and the conductor (Evan Rogister). We’re so excited about that. Seán is just a ditch - I did a Candide and (to Greer) you did a Salome with him. Remember where we all stripped naked because he wanted us all depraved? [Laughs.] 

GG: [Laughs.] I’m not sure we should include that. 

LB: He wouldn’t care, he loved it. And Evan we met when he was assistant conductor on the Ring cycles in Seattle. 

GG: He’s gone on to have a wonderful career now. I sang with him after the Ring a couple years ago in Salome in Dallas. He’s developed into a fine young conductor. 

EM: About Emma, was she bitten by the performance bug because you encouraged her, or was just around it all the time, or did she come to it on her own? 

GG: I don’t think we’ve come down to a single answer. 

LB: I think the exposure made a huge impression on her. Meeting and getting to know all these fabulous artists who are well beyond petty parts of the business that young singers have to deal with, though sometimes she says she feels very much alone as a young singer because her peers don’t really understand - they’re just learning what happens in big productions in big companies. Diane Zola, who ran the Houston program for years and is artistic administrator there now - she was maid of honor at our wedding, we’re very good friends. About Diane Emma said, “Mom, it’s really hard when people bring up Diane Zola and say she’s so important, and I remember her being at my first birthday party and babysitting me.” But I think Emma is so enamored of the art form of opera. she got a degree in English and Women’s Studies, so there are parts of opera she thinks are chauvinistic and disappointing, but she has a very small group of friends who love opera, and want to see it survive in a good way. They call it, “Fighting the good fight.” Emma describes herself as living at the intersection of opera and musical theatre. In some ways her voice really thrives in musical theatre, she has a propensity for it. But I also remember her singing “C” above high “C” in perfect pitch - she was uncanny that way - and she can hear parts in the orchestra. She sat for hours, listening and never got bored. She was always curious. The stage manager would make her honorary stage manager. Her big treat was rolling up the tape from the floor at the end of rehearsal. We had a closet full of balls of masking tape. 

GG: [Laughs.] I don’t think it was osmosis, but she was exposed constantly. She did go through this phase in high school where she didn’t want to have anything to do with singing. She just stepped back. Then she joined the choir. But she never gave us any inclination that she was driving for it. 

EM: Maybe she didn’t know herself. 

GG: I think so. But it somewhat clarified for her when she got to New Orleans here to study. 

LB: I don’t know - I ask myself this question everyday - I think guiding someone toward passion for a certain art form is a good thing. I remember two things that happened with Emma. One was that she made a comment at some point that she was bored. I said, “You can be bored if you want. Stupid people get bored, and you’re not stupid.” The other thing I said - I caught her at a good time when she was enjoying a rehearsal - was, “Isn’t this exciting?’ she said yes, and I said, “And you’re welcome to be here anytime, as long as you can be quiet and not get yourself in trouble.” That stuck with her. She could sit for hours. Sometimes she would draw pictures of what was going on, or take her own notes for her dad and me. “You should be careful with the spada, the sword, when you’re wrestling with Don José.” 

GG: Yes [Laughs]. 

EM: That’s amazing. 

LB: I guess she really was in love with it, wanted to be a part of it so much. 

EM: What will you two being performing together in the near future? 

LB: The only thing officially on the books and signed is Dutchman in Dallas. Next month at Loyola we’re having a Dramatic Voice Symposium. Peter Volpe will be here, Brenda Harris, Melanie Helton, possibly Allan Glassman, among others, and the two of us. We’re going to do a Gala concert at the end. Plus there’s a discussion of a possible Sweeney Todd that hasn’t been solidified. 

GG: It’s just when the opportunities come up. Sometimes they come up in clusters. Sometimes it takes a while [Laughs]. We’re always looking for that chance. 

EM: And the universe will bring it to you. Opera lovers are always looking for opportunities to see the both of you, and I can’t wait to see you on stage in San Diego! Thank you so much, you two, for spending time with me. 

LB: It’s wonderful to talk to you. 

San Diego Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance will run at the San Diego Civic Theatre from Oct. 14-22  and will be broadcast on October 21, 2017 at 8 PM on KPBS radio, 89.5 FM (97.7 FM Calexico) and online at

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera


Photo credits: SORS Seattle, Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Monday, September 18, 2017

Multi-talented Jonathan Sussman at “The Interludes”


Jonathan and Alan Sussman play Schubert, Bach, Bruch, Dutilleux, Borne and Paganini at First Lutheran

Jonathan Sussman.
The flyer for the new seasons’s first “The Interludes” recital at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, promised “flutist, violist, pianist, and composer” Jonathan Sussman, who (the program note went on to tell us) is a double major at USC studying flute at the Thornton School of Music and biomedical engineering at the Viterbi School of Engineering. Many talents indeed! In the recital, his composing did not figure, but otherwise there was plenty to impress. 

His pianism was on display first, in company with that of his father, Alan Sussman, in Schubert’s four-hands/one-piano Marche caractéristique in C Op.121 No.1 D886b, for which there seems to be no clear evidence of date. As with episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, there’s always more to discover in Schubert’s virtually limitless output, and I had not previously come across this march. Prior scoping of YouTube performances revealed a wide range of possible tempi, from plodding to hell-for-leather. Fortunately, the Sussmans’ inclined to the latter (though their attack, vehement as well as athletic, tested First Lutheran’s piano), keeping the potential tedium of the march’s many repetitions at bay, even with a full clutch of repeats. Clearly it’s a minor item in the great Schubertian canon, but even so, the passing sideways harmonic shifts, and the more delicate beauty of its trio section, signaled the genius behind it. 

Jonathan next took up his flute, and his performance, with his father at the piano, of J.S. Bach’s Sonata in E minor for flute and continuo BWV 1034 gained confidence as it proceeded. After accounts of the first, Adagio ma non tanto, and second, Allegro, movements that seemed to me a little careful, the following Andante evinced some nice breath control in the movement’s long spacious phrases, while both players brought an airborne, improvisatory quality to their rapid contrapuntal interactions in the final Allegro

Now for the viola. The original version of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei Op.47 is styled, somewhat unusually, as being for ‘cello with orchestra and harp, but it also exists in various arrangements and transcriptions. One for viola and piano was made as recently as 2014 by one Orfeo Mandozzi, though the Sussmans did not clarify whether what they played was this or another. Jonathan immediately showed an ease with the instrument quite equal to that with the flute, but in the music itself I found the substitution of viola for ‘cello diminished the heft of the Adagio ma non troppo opening, though in the central Un poco piú animato it gave a delicacy to the texture, in company with the piano doing its best to impersonate the harp. 

Henri Dutilleux at approximately the time
of composition of his Flute Sonatine.
The very long-lived Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) was one of the giants of 20th century French music, and famously self-critical. One of the early works that he later repudiated was his Sonatine for flute and piano of 1943, and the Sussmans’ performance made one grateful that the composer’s dissatisfaction never became an embargo.

This was the recital’s highlight for me, a work of teeming invention across its 10-minute span. The first of the three brief movements is amiable enough – an equal partnership of the two instruments in a cool, medium-paced discourse – but the following Andante, at first juxtaposing piano broodings with arabesques on the flute, pulls the two instruments together with growing tension until it precipitates the wild Anime finale, projected with great élan by Jonathan and his father. Wonderful stuff!

After this, two less substantial items. First came one of the many fantasias/potpourris/selections derived by other composers from the fertile soil Bizet laid down in his Carmen. This was the Fantaisie Brillante by François Borne, who puts the flute through its paces, faithfully underpinned by the piano, in virtuosic reworkings of some of the opera’s most familiar numbers. Finally – as an unprogrammed encore – Jonathan Sussman took the stage alone in a solo flute rendering of Paganini’s Caprice No.24 from his set of 24 – the familiar one that has probably been the subject of even more variations and reimaginings than the tunes from Carmen. I don’t know whether this was a literal transcription of the complete original violin Caprice, but it certainly sounded as finger-tangling, and was enthusiastically applauded by the Interludes audience.


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, September 16, 2017.
Photos: Jonathan Sussmann: courtesy UCLA; Henri Dutilleux: courtesy Radio France.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

More new stars shine at Mount Wilson


Works for flute quartet, Mount Wilson Observatory

l-r: Sara Andon, Alyssa Park, Cécilia Tsan, Alma Fernandez.
Of course, subsequent visits can never quite match the impact of one’s first encounter with such an astonishing new music venue as the dome of the 100-inch reflecting telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, but the pleasurable anticipation that built up while re-negotiating all those hairpin turns on the road up to the Observatory made up for it. Once again Cécilia Tsan, Artistic Director of this new venture of Sunday afternoon summer concerts in the dome, had devised a fascinating and unhackneyed program for herself (playing ‘cello – probably the largest instrument that can be safely carried up the long and precipitous metal ladder leading to the telescope floor!) and her colleagues Sara Andon (flute), Alyssa Park (violin) and Alma Fernandez (viola). 

Three works by three highly prolific masters from the 18th and 20th centuries, Mozart, Martinů, and Villa-Lobos, formed the main part of the program. Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D major K.285 is the first of his four in the genre, probably composed in 1777-78. It’s a slender three-movement piece in which the flute is the star of the show from the outset, and this immediately demonstrated the extraordinary clarity and impact of high woodwind tone within the great steel dome. Due I am sure to the long delay time of the acoustic, the quartet took the first movement Allegro and Rondo finale at fairly relaxed speeds, and avoided the consequent lengthening of playing-time by omitting not only the rarely-observed second-half repeat in the first movement but also that of the exposition.

Bohuslav Martinů.
This was not a problem in my book, particularly as the title of the ensuing Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola H.313, composed by Bohuslav Martinů in 1949, belies their scale, range, and power just as does that of Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello Op.7, which Ms Tsan included in her previous recital here. The Martinů indeed for me was by some measure the highlight of the concert.

This great composer by some alchemy makes his two instruments sound like an orchestra, with Ms Park and Ms Fernandez seizing every one of the huge range of stylistic, rhythmic and timbral effects deployed across all three movements: simultaneous and alternating ostinati superimposed on Bohemian-Moravian folk rhythms in the first; overlapping tremolandi, like ripples on the seashore, overlain with what recalled a susurration of muted birdsong in the second; and a wild peasant dance in the third, where the violin and viola twirl and swirl uninhibitedly around each other. 

Having given the spotlight to the other string members of the group in this marvelous piece, Ms Tsan’s clever programming then led herself and Ms Andon to step forward in Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Assobio a Játo (The Jet Whistle) for Flute and ‘Cello W.493, like the Martinů a fairly late work in its composr's output, composed in 1950. It is similarly in three movements, the medium-paced first movement opening with a wide-ranging ‘cello cantilena against rhythmic tics and oscillations above from the flute. This is succeeded by a pensive Adagio meditation where the flute in its low register takes the melodic lead while the ‘cello gravely explores the depths beneath, and then a final hell-for-leather Vivo movement that ends in a Prestissimo carrying the following footnoted injunction in the score: “The only way to achieve the effect the composer wishes, as indicated by the words imitando fischi in toni ascendenti, is to blow into the embouchure fff as if one were warming up the instrument on a cold day(!)” Ms Andon blew as lustily as could be imagined, achieving a sound I’m sure had never been heard in the dome in its entire 100-year history…

Next came four film-music selections. Big film-music fan though I am, I can’t avoid the built-in problem that what can superbly underpin and intensify the mood of a movie scene may not stand up so well as a whole musical experience when it appears in a concert setting divorced from the visuals. There’s often not much to be done with a self-contained romantic theme other than to noodle around and then restate it, and for me diminishing returns began to set in when, after two pieces from Georges Delerue’s score to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (“Contempt”) and one from John Williams’ Star Wars, a set from Ennio Morricone’s score to Cinema Paradiso rather outstayed its welcome. 

The late Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia
in the original "Star Wars".
On the other hand, as arranged by Patrick O’Malley for these forces (in all the above items), the husky magic of the much-loved “Princess Leia’s Theme” played on an alto flute in that unique environment was unmissable and unforgettable, while in conclusion John Williams’ versatility was underlined (as if it needed to be!) with the brief “Double Trouble” number from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, arranged for flute, violin, viola and ‘cello by Simone Pedroni. 

I fervently hope that this short initial season of concerts has been as big a success from the Observatory’s viewpoint as it undoubtedly was from the audiences’, and that after winter snows have come and gone, more great music will be heard in the great dome next year. 


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 10 September 2017, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: The performers: Ruth Borst Punt; Carrie Fisher: People Movies; Mount Wilson Observatory: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis, courtesy Los Angeles Magazine

Monday, September 11, 2017

Schumann masterpiece opens the South Bay’s new season


First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

… and here we are, back for the new season! Once again, fortunate South Bay residents can look forward to no fewer than four chamber music series through to late spring 2018: “First Fridays at First” and “The Interludes” from Classical Crossroads Inc. at First Lutheran Church, Torrance; “Second Sundays at Two” at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church; and the South Bay Chamber Music Society at Los Angeles Harbor College, Wilmington, and Pacific Unitarian Church, Rolling Hills Estates. Though actually one week later than its titular slot, due to the Labor Day Holiday weekend, “First Friday” still led off the season on September 8, with a fine account of Robert Schumann’s Piano Quartet Op.47 from the Los Angeles Ensemble (Joanna Lee, violin; Tanner Menees, viola; Bingxia Lu, ‘cello; Sung Chang, piano). 

The Los Angeles Ensemble, l-r: Sung Chang, Joanna Lee, Tanner Menees, Bingxia Lu. 
If the crude but clear metric of quantity of CD recordings listed at ArkivMusic is anything to go by, Schumann’s Piano Quartet lies somewhat in the shadow of its artistic “twin”, his Piano Quintet Op.44 (45 recordings of the Quartet, 80 of the Quintet). Both were composed in 1842, and are of similar length (the Quintet a couple of minutes more if its lengthy first movement exposition repeat is observed); they share the same four-movement layout, and even the same key signature of E-flat major. Op.44 is, however, generally credited with helming a whole new compositional genre (quintets for piano plus the normal string quartet lineup of two violins, viola and ‘cello), whereas the piano quartet medium – for piano, violin, viola, and ‘cello – was already well established when Schumann came to write his own Op.47.

Schumann in 1839, three years before the composition
of the Piano Quartet: lithograph by Josef Kriehuber. 
The two works, in fact, unfold very differently from their very opening measures. Whereas the Piano Quintet’s bold unison Allegro brillante leads to expansive and immediately memorable thematic subjects, romantic and aspiring, the Piano Quartet steals in with soft piano leaps and sustained string harmonies that always sound to me rather “late Beethoven”.

A sequence of three isolated chords on all four instruments and a downward cascade of notes on the piano is repeated, and then the movement proper commences, quite quietly, with a main theme more notable for its contrapuntal layering and purposeful onward progress than the sort of instant “ear worm” quality that the Piano Quintet provides at the same point.

All this was beautifully handled by the Los Angeles Ensemble. The three strings’ opening was appropriate spacious without being particularly slow, the increase in speed was held back enough for the piano’s downward cascade to be crystal clear, and then they were properly under way with the Allegro well qualified as ma non troppo, just as the composer marks.

A clear structural difference from the Piano Quintet is that the Piano Quartet’s middle movement order is reversed, i.e. scherzo/slow movement, not slow movement/scherzo. Both works’ Scherzo movements have Schumann’s oft-used pattern of scherzo–trio 1–scherzo–trio 2–scherzo, but in the Quartet the scherzo sections are much shorter, scurrying by Molto vivace like barely-glimpsed Mendelssohnian fairies. Ms. Lu’s ‘cello and Mr. Chang’s piano duly delivered a blur of low-pitched staccato figuration, both hectic and subdued, that created exactly the right effect.

Back to those differences: in the Quintet the expansive, eloquent first movement is followed by a hushed and halting quasi-funeral march, whereas after the Quartet’s Scherzo movement – its five sections all done and dusted in less than four minutes – comes a radiant, song-like Andante cantabile. Again the Los Angeles Ensemble to my ears got it just right; not overly slow or soulful, with Ms. Lu and Mr. Menees, in particular, carrying their 'cello and viola assumptions of the main melody with discreet but radiant eloquence. The Vivace Finale was no let-down – the ball kept in the air throughout this lengthy movement, with all four players particularly relishing, it seemed to me, those passages where Schumann exhilaratingly piles up fugal entries like a river about to burst its banks.

After this exuberant performance, the Ensemble treated its audience to a substantial encore, the “Summer” movement from Piazzolla’s Four Seasons of Buenos Aires. This composer, and in particular this work, seem inescapable in CD listings and concert programs at present. I confess I’m ambivalent about Piazzolla – all too often the initial exhilaration and appeal of his music gives way to a “for-God’s-sake-can’t-he-do-anything-else-besides-tango?” exasperation, but in this performance the Los Angeles Ensemble’s skill enabled him to just about get away with it.


“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, September 8, 2017. Photos: Los Angeles Ensemble; Robert Schumann: Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Will Liverman: from Dizzy Gillespie to Rossini’s Figaro

INTERVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall

Will Liverman is a true “crossover” artist with a distinctive range of roles in a number of unusual genres. The Norfolk,Virginia, native has sung classic repertoire such as Rossini’s Figaro and Tarquinius in Britten’s The Rape of Lucretia. But his range includes Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker’s Yardbird, a chamber opera composed by Daniel Schnyder with libretto by Bridgette A. Wimberly, in which the jazz icon confronts his demons as he composes his final masterpiece.

After delighting Seattle Opera audiences in his debut as Raimbaud in last season’s Count Ory, Will Liverman brings his unique personality, style and artistry to the role of Figaro in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville this month.

Erica Miner: Where are you based? Where did you grow up?

Will Liverman: I am based in Wrigleyville, home of the Chicago Cubs! I was born in Norfolk, Virginia and raised in Virginia Beach, Virginia.

EM: How did you come to opera?

WL: I attended the Governor’s School for the Arts, an all arts high school, in Norfolk, Virginia. The Governor’s School is a highly competitive program made up of students coming from all the major cities in the Hampton Roads Area. I auditioned for the piano and voice program, and was accepted into the voice program (I had hoped for piano). I originally thought the "voice" program was going to be a place where they taught popular styles of music such as pop, r&b, etc. The voice program was essentially an opera program for young singers and I knew nothing about opera. However, it was there that I had my first voice lessons, performed fully staged operas, learned how to sing in different languages, etc. Having strong roots in gospel music, it was quite different than anything I had ever done before. When the program was said and done, I came out wanting to pursue a career in opera.  

EM: Clearly you had an unrecognized talent for the art form. What are your favorite roles?

Steve Henry, Opera Queensland

WL: Some of my favorite roles so far have been Figaro in Barber of Seville, Marcello in La Bohéme, and Le Mari in Les Mamelles di Tiresias!

EM: Le Mari has got to be one of the most fun roles ever. What approach do you take to the well known, iconic role of Figaro?

WL: I always learn something new about Figaro each time I step into the role. I try to keep an open mind to different character possibilities and motivations for each scene. The role becomes uninteresting and you bypass the opportunity to learn anything new the moment you fall into the "this is how I do this role" mindset.

Steve Henry, Opera Queensland
EM: Do you sing recitals and in concerts with orchestra?

WL: Yes! Recitals and concert work are two imperative aspects of my career.

EM: Tell me about your role of Dizzy Gillespie in Charlie Parker's Yardbird.

WL: Having the chance to create the role of Dizzy Gillespie from nothing and bring it to life is one of the coolest and most exciting things I've ever done. The opera itself is quite exciting as well. It is a 90-minute jazz-infused chamber opera about the life of Charlie Parker with some riveting music. It premiered in Philadelphia and made its way to NYC, Madison, Chicago, and London. I was fortunate enough to be a part of every production. One of the coolest moments about the whole thing was taking the opera to the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. It brought in a very diverse audience to the opera, and was also the first opera to ever be performed at that theater. I used to grow up watching "Showtime at the Apollo", so I felt honored to be a part of history!

EM: The first opera performed at the Apollo sounds as exciting as it gets. Please describe Chicago Lyric Opera’s Unlimited Initiative and your connection with that project. Likewise, ENO’s Hackney Empire.

WL: Both the Lyric Opera Unlimited Initiative and ENO's Hackney Empire share a mission to bring opera to new and diverse audiences. Being a part of Charlie Parker's Yardbird for both of those companies was so meaningful because it brought in so many first timers to the opera. Most people were really excited after their experience and wanted to come back to see something else.

EM: What is coming up next for you?

WL: I'll be returning with the Lyric Opera Unlimited in their production of Fellow Travelers. I'll also be making my role debut as Papageno in Magic Flute with Florentine Opera and returning to the role of Figaro with Kentucky Opera.  I'll be coming back to my hometown to appear as the baritone soloist for Carmina Burana with Virginia Symphony as well. In addition to the opera and concert work, I'll be releasing my first full album next year featuring Russian and English songs!

EM: Your new album sounds intriguing. Please keep me posted. And thanks so much for letting us know about you. I look forward to your Figaro!

WL: Thanks!

Seattle Opera’s The Barber of Seville runs at McCaw Hall from Oct. 14-28.

Steve Henry, Opera Queensland


Photo credits: Larrynx Photography; Steve Henry, Opera Queensland
Erica Miner can be reached at:

Friday, September 1, 2017

LACO Endowed $1.5 Million by Carol and Warner Henry

Carol and Warner Henry, who endowed the $1.5 million Allan Vogel Chair. Photo: Lee Salem


Los Angeles

The Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra (LACO), currently celebrating its 50th anniversary season, received a $1.5 million gift from philanthropists Carol and Warner Henry, who are among the Orchestra's top donors since the early 1970s, it was announced by Executive Director Scott Harrison. The gift is the largest in the Orchestra’s history.

The gift endows the Principal Oboe Chair, to be titled the “Allan Vogel Chair, endowed by the Henry Family,” which is named in honor of LACO’s much beloved Principal Oboe for 44 years until his retirement in June 2016. The Henrys' gift will also help support LACO’s Baroque Conversations series and the Orchestra’s performance of Baroque repertoire, a particular passion of the Henrys, as well as an expanded commitment to chamber music.

The Henrys became involved with LACO shortly after its inception and have contributed in excess of $3 million, including donations over the past four decades of $1.5 million for operational support and their Baroque Challenge, which inspired LACO audience members to give an additional $400,000 for artistic programming. LACO, one of the nation's leading orchestras, is renowned for its wide-ranging repertoire and adventurous commissioning initiatives.

Over more than four decades, the Henrys have also furthered the Orchestra with their time and leadership. Warner Henry served on LACO’s Board of Directors and now sits as an Emeritus Board Member. They have both helped guide LACO's community partnerships and collaborations and have been major underwriters of Baroque Conversations since its inception. They have hosted numerous LACO fundraisers and donor stewardship events and served as gala chairs in 2013. The Henrys were honored at LACO’s 2011 concert gala.

“Warner and Carol never hesitate to lead the way,” says Harrison. “Their unending generosity provides inspiration for countless others, so it is fitting that they are the first donors in our orchestra’s history to name a chair. It is even more fitting that the chair honors former Principal Oboe Allan Vogel, one of our most iconic, dedicated and joyful musicians. Through their philanthropy, wisdom, graciousness and shared passion for music, the Henrys have made an indelible imprint on LACO. They also support dozens of other arts organizations throughout Los Angeles, LA Opera, Colburn School of Music and Musica Angelica, among them. Without the Henrys, whose extraordinary giving is exceeded only by the heart and time they have poured into the organization, LACO would not be the world-class musical institution that it is today.”

“Carol and I are drawn to Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra and many other top L.A. musical ensembles for the same reason Neville Marriner was 50 years ago," explains Warner Henry. "He beamed when telling visitors how overcome he was with the quality of the musicians in this city; the same is true for us. Chamber music stirs very deep passions. We also have a deep love for Baroque music and know so many others do as well. Both are core to the LACO experience and nobody exemplified the vitality and resonance of Baroque and chamber music better than our friend Allan Vogel. As LACO’s principal oboe for over 40 years, Allan was synonymous with intimate, transcendent music-making, and we are thrilled to endow a chair in his name, honoring and celebrating decades of incredible music making, and his joyous rapport with LACO’s patrons.”

A. Vogel. Photo: Michael Burke

“How wonderful that my dear friends Warner and Carol Henry have so generously ensured the strength of LACO's oboe section well into the future,” says Vogel. “Music lovers and musicians in our community are truly fortunate that the Henrys are such passionate supporters. They glow with selfless appreciation of our art. I look forward to joining LACO audiences to hear each concert begin with a glorious tuning A from LACO’s Principal Oboe Claire Brazeau.”

Warner W. Henry has served as the Chairman of the Board and a Director of Henry Company since 1974. He held various sales and sales management positions with the company from 1963 to 1974, and also served as Chief Executive Officer. He founded The Henry Wine Group and served as its Chairman of the Board. He serves on the board or is an Overseer of the following organizations: The Employers Group, The Henry Wine Group, Hoover Institution, LA Opera, Colburn School of Music and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. Warner received an A.B. in Economics from Stanford University and an M.B.A. from Stanford University, Graduate School of Business.

Carol Henry earned both Bachelor and Masters of Arts in education from Stanford University and taught in the Manhattan Beach school system until 1966 when she married Warner. Carol’s volunteer career began with her involvement with the Junior League of Los Angeles in 1970. Since then, she has served on numerous community boards, including KCET Women’s Council, The National Council on Alcoholism, Cate School, Teach for America, Los Angeles Opera League, Pasadena Art Alliance and Art Center College of Design. Additionally, she has been a member of the Board of LA Opera since 1985 and served as president or chairman of the Executive Committee since 2005. On the Opera Board, she has also chaired the Development, Patron, Nominating and 20th Anniversary committees.

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, ranked among the world’s top musical ensembles, marks its 50th anniversary in the 2017-18 season. Beloved by audiences and praised by critics, the Orchestra is known as a preeminent interpreter of historical masterworks as well as a champion of contemporary composers. LACO, headquartered in the heart of the country's cultural capital, has been proclaimed “America’s finest chamber orchestra” (Public Radio International), “LA’s most unintimidating chamber music experience” (Los Angeles Magazine), “resplendent” (Los Angeles Times), and “one of the world's great chamber orchestras"(KUSC Classical FM). LACO, which performs throughout greater Los Angeles, has garnered eight ASCAP Awards for Adventurous Programming.


Photo permissions are from LACO. Photo of Carol and Warner Henry photo is by Lee Salem. Photo of Allan Vogel is by Michael Burke.

For further information on LACO, call 213-622-7001 or visit