Saturday, June 24, 2017

Dresden Fest II: Beethoven's Eroica at the Frauenkirche

Frauenkirche Church with Martin Luther statue in Dresden, Germany
REVIEW: Dresden Music Festival 2017, Part II

Dresden, Germany
RODNEY PUNT

As the headliner for its final outing of the 40th season, the Dresden Music Festival's in-house orchestra and conductor Ivor Bolton chose the iconic Eroica Symphony of Beethoven. The choice was significant. BBC Music magazine's survey of world conductors this past September announced the Eroica as the greatest symphony of all time. Composed in 1803, it was Beethoven’s breakthrough work, serving as both a personal catharsis for his hearing loss and music’s most powerful anthem for revolution and social change in early 19th century Europe.

Dresden’s venerable Frauenkirche Lutheran church was the much anticipated concert venue. Designed by master architect George Bähr, it was constructed between 1726 and 1743, the peak professional years of two musical titans associated with Saxony, J.S. Bach and G.F. Handel. Called the “Stone Bell,” the Frauenkirche's large rotunda thrusts up 96 meters and is capped by a massive dome. It is one of the crown jewels of the Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther's lofty statue stands in the town square directly in front of it. But history was to be cruel to the Frauenkirche. It was completely destroyed by Allied bombing in the waning months of the Second World War. Reconstructed with donations from around the world and opened again in 2005, it now serves as a potent symbol for the horrors of war and the reconciliation of former enemies.

The Reformation's five hundredth anniversary came a day before this concert. The intensity, grand scale, and lofty aspirations of Beethoven's Eroica seemed a fitting statement for that moment. The work's significance had been highlighted in an earlier panel discussion among four top German music critics, each taking one movement to compare notable recordings.

I would like to report the performance itself a success. Alas, the collaboration of church and symphony proved problematic. Although I have heard fine chamber performances here in past years, the reverberant, quirky space, glorious to the eye, was not designed for the dense textures of symphonies. Beethoven’s mercurial harmonies and instrumental colors sounded cacophonous, blurred, unbalanced, and selectively displaced, as if by malevolent magic, to regions where no players were present. Particularly disorienting were the harmonic resolutions. With the Frauenkirche’s sound decay a full six seconds, Beethoven’s loud dominant chords smothered their softer tonic resolutions.

Still, the orchestra labored on, especially the strings, as if their lives depended on it. The baton-less Bolton had a fine sense of the work’s architecture and ensured its propulsion. Good turns were put in by all, with woodwinds and brass registering well enough under the circumstances. But, in the din, strings were just so much inaudible gauze. Fierce timpani strokes were heard not from the front, but from behind, their pings ponging at the back wall of the chamber. Likewise, the horns sounded as not from their seats on the right, but from the opposing wall on the left. The results unintentionally mocked the earlier panel discussion on performance subtleties in recordings. In terms of performance ideals, it was a night to write home about, but for all the wrong reasons.

Viewed from another perspective, however, the arranged marriage of the Eroica and the Frauenkirche, like many such among Dresden’s historic royal families, had to do with larger considerations than just the compatibility of two protagonists. Beethoven’s blazing musical journey to artistic truth emitting from Dresden’s monument to the Reformation served as powerful musical analog for mankind’s messy struggle to achieve dignity, self-determination, and enlightenment.

In that regard, I was reminded of the life story of a former colleague, Austrian conductor Herbert Zipper. Imprisoned at Dachau in the 1930’s, he composed the music for the prisoner's defiant Dachaulied (Dachau Song). Zipper's family was able to free him just before the camps were closed for good, but the song's poet, Jura Soyfer, would lose his life at Buchenwald. Escaping Europe, Zipper joined his fiancé in the Philippines and became the chief conductor of the Manila Symphony. But with the invading Japanese Army, the orchestra was shut down and Zipper put under house arrest. At war’s end, following a promise made to himself in a dark moment,  Zipper obtained support from General McArthur to perform a concert at Manila's bombed-out Santa Cruz church, its ceiling open to the sky. He cobbled together what was left of his musicians and their instruments, many salvaged from the horrific fires of the Allied bombing of Manila, equivalent in many areas to the similar destruction of Dresden. Missing were the orchestra's concertmaster, the leader of its woodwinds, and its two finest horn players, all killed in the war. On May 10, 1945, Zipper and his rag-tag company performed two symphonies, Beethoven’s Eroica and Dvorak's New World. What these works must have sounded like was immaterial; what they represented was everything.

Back at the Frauenkirche, the evening's fare had also included works by Wagner and Strauss. As opener, veteran mezzo-soprano Waltraud Meier offered a tasteful rendition of Richard Strauss’s valedictory Vier letzte Lieder (Four Last Songs). Her modulated vocals in these works of fragile intimacy, surrounded by Strauss’s lush orchestrations, were mostly swallowed in the church’s acoustic. Successful, however, was the third song, “Beim Schlafengehen” (When Falling Asleep), where Waltraud’s voice was able to soar above and reach through the orchestra. Wagner’s overture to his early opera Rienzi came across even better. Unlike the denser lacings of the Beethoven and Strauss, the crudely effective curtain-opener withstood the quirky but proud church rotunda, where Germany's "Father of Music," Heinrich Schütz, is remembered with a brass scroll on its stone floor.

Waltraud Meier, Ivor Bolton and Dresden Festival Orchestra in the Frauenkirche Church

Some weeks before I arrived in Dresden, the Festival Orchestra had given a concert at the city’s newly renovated Kulturpalast. The former eye-sore relic of German Democratic Republic modernism had just been handsomely re-skinned, its interior also renovated. That preservation seems to this observer an open-hearted sign of Dresden’s willingness to embrace, rather than erase, its post-war experience. Reports of the renovation suggest it has been successful, with its acoustics on a comparable level to other European concert halls. 

The renovation of the Kulturpalast also has symbolic significance. In explaining the Festival’s overall theme this year of 'Light', Vogler at one point invoked the term Lichtgestalten (“torch bearers”) -- those who lead the distressed out of fear and ignorance into richer illuminations of human experience. Taking a tarnished relic from the GDR and realizing the good intentions within it suggested to me a generous inclusiveness over a triumphalist exclusion. Dresden had picked itself up after its horrible devastation and uneasy later occupation and made things better.

That is a fitting model for any society to emulate.

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Dresdener Musikfestspiele, 40 Jubiläum
Frauenkirche, June 10, 2017 - 8pm.
Dresdner Festspieorchester, Ivor Bolton, Director 
Waltraud Meier, mezzo soprano

Photos: Ruth and Rodney Punt

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Dresden Music Festival Explores Light and Dark Themes


Dresden Music Festival street scene (Photo: DMF)
REVIEW: Dresden Music Festival 2017, Part I

Dresden, Germany
RODNEY PUNT

The Dresden Music Festival, held each spring in the capital of Germany’s Saxony, has just rounded off its first four decades. Once a showcase for the ostensibly progressive but culturally conservative German Democratic Republic, its fare has rejuvenated in the last nine years under cellist-cum-entrepreneur Jan Vogler. As its Artistic Director, he has positioned the May through June Festival among the most important European stops in classical music, while also opening it up to more eclectic fare, spanning tastes from profound to pop-fun.

Jan Vogler (Photo:DMF)
Vogler mottoed this year’s edition “Light,” citing “humanity’s life elixir, a symbol of enlightenment, freedom, transparency and energy.” Featured were big works by Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich and Stravinsky; but also jazz sessions and retro-pop songs from the likes of Max Raabe and his Palast Orchester. Especially impressive were the symphony orchestras: the City of Birmingham’s, the London Philharmonic, the Orchestre de Paris, and two, the Festspieleorchester and the Barockorchester, from Dresden itself. No fewer than 1,500 artists took part in 60 concerts at 22 local venues. Even the weather cooperated with mostly sunny skies for the 54,000 in attendance.

But talk in festival circles was of more than dazzling virtuosos and performances. It was about serious issues confronting the world today, and how, at least historically, music influenced social and political movements, shaping perceptions that led to reform. The need for music to speak again for change seemed palpable. Three events I took in cast light on some of the doppelgangers that darken human existence and revelations that brighten it.

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre in White Water and Dust

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre (Photo: CGDT)

The Cloud Gate Dance Theatre hails from Taiwan, the Chinese island that sits uneasily off the shore of mainland China, one that the mainland claims as its own, and that even its closest allies like the United States acknowledge belongs to China. Yet the island is self-governing, at least for now, existing, it would seem, in suspended animation awaiting an uncertain future.

Two of the company’s recent works were performed in Dresden’s Festspielhaus Hellerau. Located in a sylvan setting in the Neustadt district across the Elbe from Altstadt, the utilitarian box-shaped art center has a wing-less stage and bleacher seats. The first work, White Water, suggested idyllic purity; its companion, Dust, a tortured dystopia. Their oppositional narratives lent them twin identities of light and dark. Both premiered in 2014 and were choreographed by the company’s founder and now venerable master, Lin Hwai-min.

White Water, a cyclic work of gentle contemplation, began and ended with the serene piano of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No. 1. In between were works of similar feel by Albert Roussel, Ahmet Adnan Saygun, Maurice Ohana, and Jacques Ibert. With the stage bathed in cloud-bright lighting, dancers in milk-hued garments entered with graceful solos, duets, and groups of up to 14 dancers. They flowed on and off the stage in airy lyrics, interspersed with video projections of flowing waters and soft imagery that emerged and departed unhurriedly. Netting and bands around the dancers mirrored the rippling waters. Having achieved a maximum flow, as if to say that all combinations of humanity were in harmony, the dancers ebbed in reverse order, retracing sequences in a cyclic return to the beginning, reprising Satie’s haunting meditation.

(One had to admire the techniques of the dancers who hurled blithely off stage into non-existent stage wings, the walls facing them almost hugging the open space of the dance floor.)

While the earthly mysticism of White Water felt effortless, its Edenic state was turned on its head in Dust, all in dark shades of oppression and anxiety. The former had served as foil to the latter’s coming horrors. The music of Dust, by Dimitri Shostakovich, had been inspired by Dresden itself. The composer visited here in 1960, some 15 years after the Second World War, during the GDR days when most of Dresden’s destruction was still raw and ugly. Witnessing how the once magnificent city was flattened by allied firebombing, Shostakovich in just three days composed his tortured C-minor Quartet (no. 8, Op. 110). The music was so dark in its bleak emotions he chose it as his own musical obituary.

Lin Hwai-min’s choreography employed the Shostakovich as an outcry against the political cruelties and horrors of the modern era. Dust is a requiem for the present and last centuries, a rage against the machine formed by a chain of 16 dancers that rolls on the floor as an inexorable inhuman plow, grinding everyone in its path into the dust of the earth. The smoky stage had the feel of a coal mine or a vast dark chamber of horrors. Dancers strained to rise above their fate, only to writhe and wither under the weight. The last image was of frozen, standing victims, looking like a stage full of Munch’s ghostly screamers, or of land-locked fish with open mouths gasping for water. 

It was haunting.

Yang & Hoppe Violin-Piano Duo Seraphic in Paganini & Bach

Violinist In Mo Yang, Pianist Thomas Hoppe at Schloss Wackerbarth (Photo: R. Punt)
Rising-star violinist In Mo Yang, with pianist Thomas Hoppe, gave fluid, transparent accountings of works by Bach, Janáček, Szmanowski, Milstein, and Paganini in the acoustically clear, modern showroom of the historic Schloss Wackerbarth, a leafy hillside winery located outside of town.

Yang opened with a quasi-romantic interpretation of J. S. Bach’s Third Solo Violin Sonata (C-Major, BMV 1005). The 22-year-old’s take on the often severely-perceived Saxon composer was all sweet tones and lyrical phrases, revealing how limpid Bach’s solo works can sound when the interpreter is in a legato-rubato sort of mood. Not the only way to play Bach, it was on this occasion very beguiling.

Leoš Janáček’s Romance and Dumka for Violin and Piano is likewise lyrical, an early work by the composer closer in feel to romantic Brahms than spiky Bartok. It was a perfect work for Yang’s sensibility at this stage of his career, sweetly rendered by him and Hoppe.

The rest of the program consisted of four works penned or inspired by violinist Niccolò Paganini, whose flashy pyrotechnics mesmerized European audiences in the early nineteenth century. (Franz Liszt was to emulate similar flash on the piano and the two set in motion the era of the virtuoso instrumentalist.) Heard as almost diabolical displays by audiences of that era, in Yang’s interpretations these works seemed paragons of early romantic expression. In that positive sense, they resurrected the artistic and even spiritual reputation of a composer too often dismissed as a musical freak show.

Yang sailed through the high wattage of three violin-piano caprices on Paganini themes by Karol Szmanowski; a potpourri compilation, Paganiniana, by violinist Nathan Milstein; Paganini’s own Cantabile for Violin and Piano; and the latter’s potpourri assemblage (arranged by Fritz Kreisler) of themes from Rossini’s Cenerentola. Yang’s preternatural technical facility, delivered in Zen-like serenity, revealed extraordinary mastery. The virtuoso display made clear why Yang was chosen First Prize winner of the 2015 Paganini Competition in Genoa, the first such award that competition had bestowed in nine years.

After the fireworks, Yang glided off the stage as unruffled as if he had he had been in silent meditation the previous two hours. A perspiring Hoppe, who had also performed magnificently in the demanding pieces, seemed relieved to be done.

Coming up in the next post, Dresden Part II explores Beethoven's Eroica at the Frauenkirche church.
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Dresdener Musikfestspiele, 40 Jubiläum 18 May to 18 June, 2017

Recital: violinist In Mo Yang and pianist Thomas Hoppe 
Schloss Wackerbarth (Radebeul), June 7, 8pm 

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre
Festspielhaus Hellerau, June 9, 8pm 

Friday, June 16, 2017

Mahler’s Resurrection rises again in the Segerstrom


REVIEW

Pacific Symphony at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
DAVID J BROWN

The Pacific Symphony and Chorale in the Segerstrom Concert Hall.
This performance by the Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Pacific Chorale of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 in C minor ‘Resurrection’, conducted by PSO Music Director Carl St. Clair, was my first experience of Costa Mesa’s Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, and so transparent, vivid and impactful was the sound itself that it’s quite difficult to separate out reactions to the performance per se. Looking online afterward for some background on the building and its architectural and acoustic design, I found encomia from PSO players on how the hall’s acoustics support and enhance their work to an unprecedented degree. As one member put it, "Everybody can just relax and play the way they play."  

Maybe this was partly responsible for the sense of overall ease and responsiveness with which they performed the symphony. In sum, every department of the orchestra covered itself in glory, from the highest piccolo (as when Mahler has three of his four flautists take up the smaller instruments for their climb to a pppp empyrean just before the final choral peroration); to the boldness and security of the huge brass contingent, onstage and off; to the warm and pliant strings; and to the confident unanimity of the numerous percussion, whose biggest moment is the awe-inspiring crescendo, unleashed with maximum effect by Maestro St. Clair, with which Mahler precedes his raucous march to Judgment earlier in the finale.

Mahler at approximately the time of the Second Symphony’s composition.
In its advance publicity, the Pacific Symphony was a bit hyperbolic in describing the Resurrection as ‘the largest symphony ever known at that time’, given that in a spacious performance Beethoven’s Ninth (1818-1825) can almost match it for length and remains comfortably ahead on measure count, while Berlioz’ Symphonie dramatique ‘Roméo et Juliette’ (1839) is some 10 minutes longer and, arguably, an even more radical and imaginative rethinking and expansion of symphonic form and content. Nonetheless, neither matches Mahler’s huge orchestral forces, which out-bulk those of any symphony hitherto and not that many since (and which here were not, so far as I could tell, subject to the unfortunate economies that disfigured the performance of another blockbuster masterpiece that I heard recently in another city).

It’s getting difficult to recall the time when a live Mahler symphony was a rarity, not to mention the sniffy condescension it could meet if a concert management were brave enough to put it on (as noted by Alan Chapman in his entertaining pre-concert talk, referencing Bernstein’s then-pioneering advocacy of Mahler in 1960, the composer’s birth centenary year). Indeed, some would argue that the pendulum has swung too much the other way, with Mahler symphonies now fallback guaranteed crowd-pullers for any orchestra that can muster the requisite number of players.

And the problem for modern Mahler performances is the downside of that very ubiquity. The inevitable feeling of adventure, of danger even, that attended tackling a Mahler symphony back when they were rarities – orchestras grappling with the complexities of huge and difficult scores unknown to many if not all of their members – led to a sense of overcoming all the odds, of hard-won triumph, that nowadays is difficult to recapture given the familiarity of frequent performance. Additionally, to attain the utmost expressive intensity, Mahler builds in a plethora of tempo changes, dynamic indications, and expressive markings, and to downplay or smooth them out risks undermining the essential qualities of extremity – the neuroticism, the schmaltz, the shocks – in the music.

Carl St Clair.
Gratifyingly this rarely happened in Maestro St. Clair’s exceptionally spacious performance (clocking in at just on 90 minutes, vis-à-vis the 80 minutes suggested in the score). Time and again he carefully followed Mahler’s requirements, and it showed. One very sensible decision was to bring on the two soloists (Mary Wilson, soprano, and Margaret Lattimore, mezzo-soprano) in the pause between the intense ‘Funeral Rites’ of the first movement and the utterly contrasted idyll of the second, thereby honoring the spirit if not the absolute letter of Mahler’s extreme request for at least five minutes pause before the Andante moderato (very moderate in this performance) got under way.

The ironic Wunderhorn-derived third movement (‘St. Anthony of Padua’s Sermon to the Fishes') was quite fast, sinister and deliciously pointed, though I think the very forward motion somewhat undermined the impact of the tremendous passage near the end when Mahler blows the music sky-high in a fff climax to leave the stage clear for the brief 'Urlicht' ('Eternal Light') fourth movement. Here, Ms Lattimore’s beautifully soft first entry demonstrated almost shockingly how well this hall’s acoustic embraces and projects the voice.

The first choral entry in Mahler’s manuscript.
There’s no space here to detail the many excellences in Maestro St. Clair’s handling of the finale’s long build-up to the once-heard, never-forgotten moment when the choir at last enters (right), hushed and unaccompanied, intoning the opening words of Klopstock’s Resurrection Ode (kudos to the management for running English surtitles on the balcony-fronts above the chorus, and also, for once, leaving the hall lighting high enough to enable program-following or score reading!).

Ideally, I suppose, the 130 or so voices of the Pacific Chorale could have been augmented somewhat given the size of the orchestra they are pitted against in their final climax, not to mention the full organ that Mahler piles into the mix here, but they sang with thrilling unanimity, a tribute to their long-time Artistic Director John Alexander whose swan-song these performances were (this was the first of four). He had already been interviewed by Alan Chapman in the pre-concert talk, and was welcomed onstage again with equal fervor alongside Maestro St. Clair and the soloists for their numerous calls from a capacity audience, on its feet and cheering.

P.S. I was surprised in my admittedly fairly cursory Google search afterward that the Segerstrom Hall did not show up amongst ratings of world concert halls by acoustic excellence. In my experience the only one to surpass it is that venerable and magnificent poll-topper, Boston Symphony Hall, while among modern halls its closest match both for acoustics and internal architectural conception is a fellow “rounded shoebox”, Birmingham’s comparably glamorous Symphony Hall (that’s Birmingham, England, not Birmingham, Alabama). I look forward to enjoying its glorious sound many times in the future.

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Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, June 8, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Pacific Symphony and Chorale: courtesy Pacific Symphony; Gustav Mahler; Manuscript score; Carl St Clair.

David Holloway Shepherds Santa Fe Apprentices

David Holloway


INTERVIEW: Santa Fe Opera

John Crosby Theatre
ERICA MINER

The Santa Fe Opera has been serenading the mountains and mesas north of Santa Fe, New Mexico, since John Crosby founded the company in 1957. Long held to be one of the world’s premiere operatic ensembles, the Santa Fe Opera is a force of nature that has attracted major talent from around the world; a true repertory company, with consistent casts and no star system. Its starkly attractive venue is the only outdoor theatre in American designed exclusively for opera. 

“The attention of the music world was focused this summer on one of the most phenomenal beginnings in U.S. operatic history,” wrote Opera News in 1957, “The debut of the Santa Fe Opera Association.” 

The company’s apprentice program, established that same year, was the first of its kind. Often called “Opera Boot Camp,” it is considered the most coveted and prestigious program on the planet. Many of the opera world’s foremost artists got their start in the program, ultimately receiving contracts for leading roles at the world’s top opera companies, and for concerts with prominent US orchestras. 

“Graduates” of The Santa Fe Opera Apprentice Programs for Singers and Technicians are active with opera, theater, and ballet companies around the world, as well as in the film and television industry. All credit the Apprentice Program as instrumental to their artistic growth and current career. According to SFeO General Director Charles MacKay, the apprentice programs are “a launching pad for the next generation of talent.”

'Il Viaggio a Rheims' Apprentice Scenes; photo Ken Howard


As director of the company’s apprentice program since 2005, international opera star and former Santa Fe apprentice David Holloway is a veritable fount of knowledge. Originally from “Nowhere, Kansas,” as he calls it, he credits the program for jumpstarting his singing career. He made his SFeO mainstage debut in 1974 as Papageno in Mozart’s Magic Flute. 

Erica Miner: John Crosby must have been a force to reckon with. 

David Holloway: Absolutely. Why John Crosby would go to Santa Fe, New Mexico, a town at that time of 35,000, and start a world-class opera company - he had to be crazy. And he was [Laughs]. But he had a vision, and he was willing to take a leap. Obviously he was brilliant, to come up with that idea. From the very first he enlisted people like Stravinsky to come. When I came from Kansas to be an apprentice it was like John was on the moon to me. I knew him from 1966 when his parents were both still alive. His dad would wander around the campus and talk to anybody. He was very easy to chat with. He had one of those really strong New England accents. I kept thinking he was British. I had a 1948 Chrysler, with the original Scotch plaid interior. John and his dad went nutty about that car. I just bought it off a lot in Kansas for $250. John drove a really old Mercedes, like early 50s. 

EM: What a vision. It must have been amazing to be around him. 

DH: From the very first he built reservoirs underground to trap water, some with 70,000 gallons. The cantina has pointed roofs to funnel water underground, from which plants were watered. In the 60s you’d see him in the mornings outside in shorts, working in the garden planting flowers, bushes, trees. Santa Fe is one of the only opera companies in the world that has its own swimming pool. The campus is just gorgeous. 

EM: Who got you started as a singer? 

DH: Bob Baustian, one of the SFeO conductors, was at Kansas when I was there in college. He was really my mentor and the reason I got into this. He took me under his wing, just saw something in me. He coached every note I sang. 

EM: Baustian was SFeO’s Mozart specialist? 

DH: Yes. When Bob left for Oberlin, John needed someone to run auditions. I was chosen because I knew the company and had accompanied most of the auditions. I’ve been director of the program for 12 years now, going into my 13th season.

'Don Giovanni' Ensemble; photo Ken Howard
EM: How did Crosby first establish the apprentice program? 

DH: He was starting an opera company in the middle of nowhere and really didn’t want to hire New York professionals to come out, pay their prices and house them for the summer. So he had this inspiration to start an apprentice program for singers. He went to colleges and hired people from there. Sherrill Milnes was an apprentice in ’59, Marlena Kleinman Malas in ’61. All these people that sang in choruses back then that went on to have careers. Back in that day, if you sang in the chorus of the Met or City Opera there was a stigma attached - it was hard to be a soloist once you’d done that. John really changed that. It’s amazing that the stigma of singing in opera chorus is just not there anymore. For someone like me from Nowhere, Kansas, it was great. I got acquainted with operas without a lot of pressure. To sing in the choruses, get to know the operas. 

EM: Who better to run an apprentice program than a former apprentice? 

DH: I was an apprentice in ’66 and ’67, 50 years ago last summer. I had been an administrator and vocal teacher in Chicago at the College of Performing Arts, and I sang in Dusseldorf for 10 years and every major opera company in Germany, then at the Met, and San Francisco. I made my Met debut in November ’73, Yamadori in Butterfly. Later I sang Schaunard with Corelli and Caballe and Pavarotti. Just fantastic casts. 

EM: What do you find most striking about the Santa Fe program? 

DH: It’s different from almost any other. St. Louis has something very similar, but nobody has the scope, the cachet, of Santa Fe. It’s different from programs like the Merola - I was in that in ’68 - that work the singers, tell them what’s wrong with them. Santa Fe is not like a conservatory program. We don’t train people how to sing. The training is really being in the operas. The schedule is tough, doing 5 operas, and what we demand of those 44 singers in chorus work - we need them to sing their hearts out - there’s not much time for anything else. They get to train with coaches who work in opera houses all over the country, who then talk about the singers they heard in our program and the singers get jobs out of it. Everything we do for the apprentices in our program has helped them get to the next step.

'Vanessa' Ensemble; photo Ken Howard 


EM: In which cities do you audition apprentices? 

DH: We used to go to Boston, New York, Bloomington, Indiana, Lawrence, Kansas, Houston, Albuquerque and L.A. About 5 or 6 years ago we started using YapTracker.com to compile the applications. Everybody has to submit audio and video recordings - we had 1,164 applications last year. Bob Tweten and I screen all the applications. Of those, we choose 450 to sing for us, live, in L.A. 

EM: 450? How do you keep them all straight? 

DH: It’s easier than you think. On the computer I have their name, something about them from their application, their teachers and conservatories. We both make notes like crazy. We keep very good records of every voice we hear. And we grade them. This was a John Crosby thing. He graded all the voices A, B, C, D. We’re still doing that. At the end of the run we choose from the A group. We sometimes have to dip into our B’s. I don’t remember having to dip into a C. The problem voices are low bass and tenor. Sopranos, mezzos, baritones, will all be from the A’s. It’s quite a process. We spend about 6 days in New York, 3 days in Chicago, 2 days in L.A. and 1 day in Albuquerque. We do Albuquerque because it’s in state. We also get singers from Houston. Rice University is probably one of the top vocal programs now. 

EM: So out of 450 you get 44, about the top 10%. How do the apprentices feel about being part of this program? 

DH: It’s one of the coveted places they like to come to. What we’ve tried to do over the years is make it as professional an experience as possible. What John said in the very first is that he wanted people to have a taste of the professional singer’s life. He always made them get their own apartments, pay for their own meals and gave them a weekly stipend to cover all that. It just barely covers it. Apartments are expensive in Santa Fe now. We’re talking about whether we should help get apprentices housing. The Housing Office gets apartments for all the artists, orchestra, but they’ve never included apprentices. I do exit interviews with each of them every summer. Charles is so responsive to stuff like that. He sees it in these exit interviews. He says, “David, maybe we ought to be doing something. Would it be helpful?” Most of the apprentices try to get acquainted with somebody from the program they can rent with. That makes a huge difference. But it’s expensive, about ¼ of what they make. 

EM: And they come from all over the world? 

DH: Yes, but if they’re going to be an apprentice they need to have been in an American program. We have a guy from Turkey this summer but he’s been at Juilliard. We have several from Canada. We’ve always had a number of foreign apprentices every summer. We don’t get visas for apprentices, though we get them for artists and conductors.

Apprentice Jared Bybee; photo Kate Russel
EM: Is the audience very receptive if an apprentice steps into a role when someone cancels at the last minute? 

DH: They just love it. For the audience and Board members and patrons the apprentice program is the “thing.” They love to get acquainted with them. Apprentices also “sing around” at outside events. We’ll do about 60 church services this summer, which they love. The events payments have really gone up, too. We do a concert on the Plaza band shell every summer. Since 2006 I’ve had an outside event in Whole Foods. The apprentices sing a 40-minute program. I usually wheel in an electric keyboard. I always tell everybody it’s going to happen in Bread [Laughs]. 

EM: Who chooses the repertoire? 

DH: Mostly Charles and Brad Woolbright, director of Artistic Administration. We plan pretty far in advance. I’m sure they have 2019 already. I love 2018, such a wonderful season. They’re doing Ariadne, which is my favorite of the season. I’m looking forward to this season, too, of course. 

EM: Santa Fe is known for its cutting edge premieres. 

DH: The one this summer is going to be fantastic, The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Mostly apprentices will cover that. For me my favorite performances of the summer are the cover ones. The best performance of Cold Mountain was the apprentice one. 

EM: I’ve interviewed the Steve Jobs composer, Mason Bates. He’s amazing, and so is the librettist, Mark Campbell. 

DH: I saw the workshop version of it the last day of the season last year. I really liked it. It was so strong. It all ended in the memorial service for Steve Jobs. I cried. 

EM: When do rehearsals start? 

DH: The apprentices arrived on May 29. I think Jobs is the 4th opera, so it won’t start for a couple of weeks. There have been so many workshop productions of it, so that cast really knows the thing already. 

EM: The eyes of the world are on it. And collaborating with Seattle Opera, San Francisco Opera, it’s going to be huge. Who are some of the most prominent opera singers that got started at Santa Fe? 

DH: Oh, the list is much too long! For starters, Sherrill Milnes, Judith Blegen, Samuel Ramey, James Morris, Neil Shicoff, Jay Hunter Morris, Joyce DiDonato. Many, many more. 

EM: Impressive. 

DH: I’ve always felt Santa Fe was the most important company I could ever get into. I tell people now, when I was a kid to me this was the most important company in the world. Now I’ve worked for them for 13 years, I still think so! [Laughs.] John Crosby was quick to understand the opportunities the company afforded for developing young talent. He created his model in response to a lack of apprentice programs elsewhere. The Santa Fe Opera was the first company to offer a wholly professional approach to apprenticeships - in 1957 for singers, and in 1965 for theater technicians, as well as career administrators in opera, theater, and the arts. All told, the programs have propelled the careers of more than 4,000 aspirants over the decades. 

EM: David, your wealth of knowledge and passion about this company are inspiring. I can’t wait to witness its greatness this summer. Thank you so much. 

DH: Thank you, Erica.

Apprentices Backstage; photo Kate Russell


 Photo credits: Courtesy of the artist; Ken Howard; Kate Russell

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Photo credits: Courtesy of the artist; Ken Howard; Kate Russell
Erica Miner can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

JoAnn Falletta’s all-Russian homecoming at Long Beach


REVIEW

Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center
DAVID J BROWN

JoAnn Falletta
This was the first time I had seen JoAnn Falletta conduct as opposed to just hearing her work on numerous CDs, not having been local to Long Beach during her 1989-2000 tenure as the LBSO’s Music Director. That was clearly a fond memory for many in the audience, whose affection when they greeted her as soon as she appeared to give the pre-concert talk was palpable. That this affection extended to the orchestra was plain to see when she came on stage to conduct the first item in the concert, movements from Shostakovich’s The Gadfly Suite Op.97b

In her talk Ms Falletta had outlined Shostakovich’s background in, and copious experience of, working with movies, from his earliest days as a piano accompanist to silent films and then on through the total of no less than 36 movie scores written during both the silent and sound film eras. The Gadfly from 1955 was the 28th of these, but despite its prominence amongst them, and the diligence with which his lesser-known works have appeared on disc in recent years, the original score for the whole movie seems not yet to have been recorded.

The Gadfly Suite, however, is well known, and four movements were played from its total of twelve. Anyone imagining from the title that the movie is some sort of wry comedy would have been rapidly disabused by the martial seriousness of the Overture, though after the sumptuously expansive account of the ensuing Romance (made virtually into a full-blown symphonic adagio, with sensitive and almost vibrato-free solo violin work from LBSO Concertmaster Roger Wilkie), a party atmosphere was well-and-truly established with the brief Gallop and Folk-Feast movements, performed with enthusiastic virtuosity and greeted with cheers.

I guess it’s being a bit of a party-pooper to say that, rather than this opening selection, I would have preferred something more unfamiliar from Ms Falletta’s long list of recordings, concentrating as she has both on contemporary Americans and neglected or forgotten composers from the past, American and foreign – the chance to hear, say, a tone-poem by Novák, or a rhapsody by Moeran, or a new work from Kenneth Fuchs, would have been very welcome. However, it was not to be: maybe at a future return?

Mariinsky Theatre production of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, 2002. 
What came next was music from Prokofiev’s Cinderella Op.87. This full-length, three-act ballet is not, in fact, all that long, and its division into no less than 50 very varied numbers over a total playing time of under two hours means that several different groups of items from the score can successfully be extracted. The composer himself produced three orchestral Cinderella suites, but for this concert Maestra Falletta made her own selection of eight numbers from them.

She had noted that despite the fairytale subject, there is a good deal of darkness in Prokofiev’s treatment, and this was well pointed up by the spacious and somber performance of the Introduction – the opening number in both the whole ballet and Prokofiev’s own first suite. Thereafter her selection traced the story from beginning to end (which no one of Prokofiev’s suites does), following the Shawl Dance, the Dancing Lesson and Gavotte, the Spring Fairy and Summer Fairy, Cinderella’s Arrival at the Ball, and finally the lowering sense of portent in Cinderella’s Waltz, with a splendidly ferocious attack on the fateful strokes of Midnight from the LBSO’s percussion team. I did think, though, that it was a mistake to reprise Cinderella’s Waltz as a final item after the rapt Amoroso that followed Midnight. As Ms. Falletta herself noted, it is in the minor, and its clouded brevity being repeated left something of a shadow over the whole performance. Maybe that was the intention, but my preference would have been to end with the Amoroso movement, particularly as its exquisite celesta arpeggios are the final sounds of the whole ballet.

George Li.
After the interval came that Russian warhorse of warhorses, Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No.1 in B-flat minor Op.23. Whenever I see it on a concert program, my first reaction is “oh, not again!”, but in practice this quirky and extraordinarily original concerto always captivates anew once that introduction is over and done with. And in this case that introduction was not as we usually hear it, for if my ears did not deceive me soloist George Li played the original score’s arpeggiated versions of the opening piano chords, far more sensitive and eloquent than the grandiose unisons substituted in the final published version (in his pre-concert conversation with Ms. Falletta, Mr. Li said something about going back to Tchaikovsky’s first thoughts).

Not least of this concerto’s quirkinesses is the Prestissimo section that flies from nowhere into the middle of the delicate and medium-paced Andantino semplice movement, and this Mr. Li threw off with other-worldly speed and lightness of touch. In the first and last movements, he brought no lack of weight and seemingly effortless virtuosity to the many big moments, but overall this was a devoted and thoroughly musical rather than a barnstorming performance, marked by rare unanimity between soloist and orchestra under Maestra Falletta’s never-failing attention.

George Li's performance of "Tchaik 1" duly got the ovation it deserved, and then the audience was rewarded with a fleet and airborne account of one of Rachmaninoff’s Preludes. I think it was the penultimate one, Op.32 No.12 in G minor, but I stand to be corrected… 

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 Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, June 10, 2017, 8p.m.



Photos: JoAnn Falletta: David Adam Beloff; Cinderella; George Li: Christian Steiner.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Robert Thies takes a European Musical Tour at Rolling Hills


REVIEW

Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church
DAVID J BROWN

Robert Thies.
Another end-of-term concert, and in it, the last of RHUMC’s “Second Sundays at Two” for the 2016-2017 season, pianist Robert Thies demonstrated his customary deft skill in program planning. The idea of “a voyage through Europe” was pegged on the inspiration for the final item in his recital, Debussy’s L'isle joyeuse L.106, being the painting by Watteau titled L'Embarquement pour Cythère (below), though critical commentary on the work seems to be divided as to whether those depicted are preparing to leave rather than embark for the island, the mythical birthplace of Aphrodite/Venus. And, given the location, there’s plenty of room for allegorical interpretation, most of the travelers clearly being amorous couples.

Either way, Mr Thies’ brilliant performance, sweeping up Debussy’s panoply of demisemiquaver whole-tone runs and plentiful showering of trills in an unstoppable torrent of forward motion, clearly made Debussy’s “joyous isle” a location for any amount of athletic activity, be it the scaling of precipitous peaks glittering in the hot Mediterranean sun, or passionate conquests of a more personal nature. 

L’Embarquement pour Cythère, by Jean-Antoine Watteau.

The voyage through Europe had begun in Vienna, with Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No.18 in E-flat Major, Op.31 No.3, sometimes known as “The Hunt” on account of the Presto con fuoco finale’s galloping motion and the appearance in it of a motif that can be likened to a horn call. Very welcome it was to encounter one of the less often played among Beethoven’s “named” piano sonatas, and Mr Thies in his spoken introduction noted that not only was this his last four-movement sonata out of the 32, but also that it enshrined notable structural originality.

Between the expansive first movement (where due to that very expansiveness the omission of the lengthy exposition repeat was understandable) and the finale, there is no slow movement as such, and instead not one but two variants on the minuet/scherzo model. Mr Thies’ fast tempo gave the second movement, which is labeled Scherzo (though it is a modified sonata structure rather than the customary ABA scherzo-and-trio form), an almost obsessively driven quality, but then treated the following Menuetto (which does have a central trio followed by repetition of the opening section) to an expansive, even dreamy interpretation that made it a de facto slow movement for the sonata. It all worked very well. 

He then stayed in Vienna for Schubert’s Impromptu in G-flat Major Op.90 No.3 D.899, from the first of his two sets of four. Mr Thies emphasized that Schubert’s tally of over 600 songs represents probably his greatest legacy to Western music, and that this songfulness often extends to his purely instrumental works. The skill with which he articulated Schubert’s intensely affecting melodic line through the almost continuous pianissimo arpeggiated accompaniment made me wish that we were hearing him play the whole set. 

Then, in complete contrast both to the Schubert and the concluding Debussy, it was on to the Russian steppes for Rachmaninoff’s rumbustious Prelude in G Minor, Op.23 No.5 (the program leaflet inadvertently got the opus number’s digits reversed). Before he resumed his place at the keyboard Mr Thies told of meeting, on a recital tour some years ago, a person who had personally known Rachmaninoff, who in turn had revealed the program behind this prelude – the outer martial sections representing a group of Cossacks approaching and then moving on from a village they had sacked, and in the central section the cries of women over the bodies of their slain menfolk. Powerful stuff, and vividly bodied forth in Mr Thies’ muscular performance. 

After flagging up the forthcoming 2017-2018 “Second Sundays at Two” season, which begins on September 10 and will include a welcome return by Robert Thies on January 14, RHUMC Music Director Chuck Dickerson III brought the pianist back onto the platform for a brief encore, one of his own improvisations as featured on one of his Blue Landscapes CDs

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Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2pm, Sunday, June 12, 2017. Photos: Robert Thies; Watteau.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

Calico Winds round off the season in fine style


REVIEW

First Fridays at First!, First Lutheran Church, Torrance
DAVID J BROWN

Calico Winds.
There was something of an end-of-term feel about the lightweight, light-hearted program delivered by Calico Winds (Rachel Berry, French horn; Kathryn Nevin, clarinet; Theresa Treuenfels, bassoon; Eileen Holt, flute; with guest artist David Kossoff, oboe, standing in for the temporarily absent Ted Sugata) as the last “First Fridays at First!” concert of the 2016-2017 series. There was even a bit of community singing, as Ms Holt led the audience in one verse of the hymn “God Be With You” as a lead-in to the final item, the fourth movement of contemporary New England composer Gwyneth Walker’s Braintree Quintet.

Each of this work’s five movements takes a different well-known hymn-tune and subjects it to resourceful variation treatment. Given the importance of context, I am always wary of extracts from multi-movement pieces being presented, and I did find the “God Be With You” movement rather unsatisfactory heard in isolation. Fortunately, the whole piece is on the composer’s website here, as well as most of the score available for download. I certainly found it rather more enjoyable listened to entire, with an inventive piquancy that runs throughout.

William Mason.
No reservations about the rest of Calico Winds’ program, however, and kudos to their giving some exposure as the starter item to a short piece by a forgotten founding father of American music, William Mason (1829-1908). Like all his works, Dance Antique, Op. 38 was written for solo piano, but its arrangement (by these players?) for wind quintet worked just fine. A slight sense of the Renaissance in some of its harmonies is about as close as it gets to anything “antique”, as structurally it is a straightforward Classical scherzo-and-trio (the horn given some moments to shine in the trio) and as such its amiable verve was well projected by the quintet. Mason wrote an entertaining volume of Memories of a Musical Life, the full text of which can be downloaded here

Roger Stevens’ wind quintet version of Bach’s "Little" Fugue in G Minor BWV578 proved for the millionth time that the wondrous surety of Bach’s tonal architecture is not merely resilient to arrangement but positively revels in it, with different timbres revealing new facets. Calico Winds adopted a quite steady basic tempo, which allowed the various woodwind colors to shine cleanly and avoided any tendency to gabble Bach’s interweaving lines. 

Claude Arrieu.
The most substantial item – if five brief movements all over and done in under a quarter of an hour can be called substantial – was the Quintet in C by the long-lived but now little-remembered French composer Claude Arrieu (1903-1990). I had never heard this before (or, I confess, any of her music) but if my innocent ear had come across it, the concision and wryness would have made me think “Poulenc” without hesitation, though maybe Poulenc with the harmonic spice slightly reduced and a little added sweetener in the form of passing jazz inflections in the first movement and the amiable waltz of the central Allegro scherzando. The two slow movements placed second and fourth were both anchored by upward walking bassoon bass lines but otherwise different in mood, the only real touch of melancholy coming in the Adagio fourth movement – to be entirely dispelled in the splendidly raucous Allegro vivace finale that had me thinking of the similar end to Ibert’s Divertissement

Many thanks to Karla Devine, Jim Eninger and colleagues in Classical Crossroads, Inc. for their continued commitment to presenting great music for us lucky South Bay inhabitants. With the “First Fridays” lunchtime series finished, and just one more to come in the companion Saturday afternoon “The Interludes” series, what are we going to do until the 2017-2018 series begin in the fall?! 

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“First Fridays at First!”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, June 2, 2017.
Photos: Claude Arrieu; William Mason; Calico Winds.