Friday, May 13, 2022

The Pacific Chorale Sing Vaughan Williams and Friends

Deanna Breiwick (soprano), Dashon Burton (baritone), with the Pacific Chorale and Pacific Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Robert Istad, acknowledge the applause after their performance of Vaughan Williams' Dona Nobis Pacem, under the Ukrainian flag colors on the supertitle display.


Pacific Chorale, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa

… but not literally “friends” of course: Frank Ticheli, the eldest amongst the three American composers and one British represented in the first half of the Pacific Chorale’s final concert in its 2021-22 season, was born in 1958, the same year that Ralph Vaughan Williams died, but nonetheless there were enough correspondences of style and sensibility between RVW’s music and theirs, as heard on the first Saturday in May, for him surely to have recognized and welcomed their 21st century upholding and continuation of the choral tradition in which he was a central 20th century figure.

l-r:Composers Jake Runestad, Frank Ticheli, and Tarik O'Regan,
and poet Marcus Omari.

The closest correspondence, perhaps surprisingly, was with the youngest composer present, Jake Runestad (b. 1986), and via a visionary creative figure from America’s literary past whose presence also infused this event. RVW was just one of many British composers who set the poetry of Walt Whitman to music, and his Dona Nobis Pacem (1936), which filled the second half of the concert and in which three of the six movements are Whitman settings drawn from various places in Leaves of Grass, was arguably his greatest work to do so.

Steel engraving of Walt Whitman in 1855,
the year of Leaves of Grass first publication.
Runestad’s Proud Music of the Storm (2017) was the final item in the first half, showing him comparably skillful in filleting the text he needed from Whitman’s much longer original poem, which first appeared in the 1871-72 edition of Leaves of Grass, though the bluff extroversion of his piece had more in common with Vaughan Williams’ earlier Whitman setting Toward the Unknown Region (1906) than the intense and visionary later work.

With the Pacific Symphony Orchestra limited here to just trumpets, trombones, percussion, harp and strings, Proud Music of the Storm’s bold and brassy opening, straightforwardly diatonic style, and clearly projected word-setting made it an obvious crowd-pleaser, with more than a touch of Hollywood feel-good and in its quiet central section one particular recurring harmonic sequence that for this listener irresistibly recalled Angelo Badalamenti’s Twin Peaks theme. It was clearly a choir-pleaser too, to judge by the Pacific Chorale's response, as confident and homogeneous as if it was a familiar repertoire piece for them. 

Caroline Shaw.
The greatest contrast to Runestad’s open-hearted populism had come with Music in Common Time by Caroline Shaw (b. 1986), originally written in 2014 with its accompaniment for strings only, but expanded four years later to full orchestra. This, second in order of performance, was the longest of the four first-half pieces, and must have presented far more of a challenge to Pacific Chorale Artistic Director Robert Istad and his choir, who nonetheless coped admirably with its very wide range of wordless vocalizing techniques: open-mouthed “Aaahhhs,” “Ooohhhs,” and “La-las,” closed-lips humming, shouting, vocal slides, etc.

All of this, together with orchestral writing that went from something like Wagner’s Das Rheingold prelude, churning around a single note, to sudden patches of string pizzicati, to smudged up-swirls à la Beatles’ A Day in the Life, to anguished stacks of chords that refused to resolve, gave then impression of a composer searching for a way forward and throwing everything she could think of at a wall in the hope that something sticks. In its latter stages, however, Music in Common Time did achieve a sort of calm resolution, with actual words (author not credited) sung with hushed tenderness by the Chorale, that earned it warm applause.

Neither of the two shorter pieces, The Quickening (2022) by London-born Tarik O’Regan (b.1978)—a commission by the Pacific Chorale to open the concert—nor Frank Ticheli’s Until Forever Fades Away (2018), were Whitman settings, but their poetic texts, respectively by the Southern Californian poet Marcus Omari and Ticheli himself, both shared the Yankee master’s visionary spirit, alive alike to the ephemeral and the eternal, meditations on the essence of human experience interacting with the natural world.

Robert Istad.
Both covered a good deal of expressive ground in their respective six and seven minutes' duration. The Quickening traced an arc from the sound of voices (the Pacific Chorale at their most ethereal) stealing in over long-held string chords, through increasingly declamatory retreats and advances in tension, to arrive at an unexpectedly terse and unemphatic conclusion.

Until Forever Fades Away was more muscularly developmental. Somber lower strings ushered in first male, then female voices in undulating waves before arriving at a strong unison, precipitating a sudden acceleration driven by rapid chanting of “go, go, go” and slightly minimalist string chugging. But this soon retreated into a tranquil affirmation (“But wisdom sees a light draw near”), and finally to soft Holstian bitonal clashes before fading away into the empyrean.

Vaughan Williams’ cantata for soprano and baritone soloists, chorus, and very large orchestra with organ, Dona Nobis Pacem, was written in the shadow of, and as an implicit warning about, the rise of Nazism. A veteran of World War 1, he had first-hand knowledge of war horrors, but in Dona Nobis Pacem he produced a masterpiece that far transcends mere polemic, being at once a plea, a warning, a call to arms if needed, a lament, and a vision of hope and transcendence.

Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1936.
Ever the master selector and setter of words, RVW fashioned the work not only from Whitman but also Catholic liturgy, many different Biblical passages, and the words of the 19th century English Quaker politician John Bright (from an 1855 Parliamentary speech about the war against the Russians in Crimea!), achieving a synthesis of consummate economy and impact—not a note too many, and none wasted.

Aside from a passing regret that the Pacific Symphony strings were reduced by a few desks from their full strength, Robert Istad and his forces rose to the considerable challenge of presenting Dona Nobis Pacem with its full expressive range intact, from the anguished appeal by the soprano in the opening Agnus Dei (Deanna Breiwick’s voice having just about the ideal combination of strength and clarity, with a touch of more vulnerable “pure” tone) to her quiet reappearance, the plea for peace unchanged, at the conclusion of the radiantly optimistic sixth movement, O Man, Greatly Beloved, some 35 minutes later.

Dashon Burton.
Deanna Breiwick.
In between came the martial savagery of movement II Beat! beat! drums!, its stentorian choral challenges and orchestral maelstrom capped off by organist Jung-A Lee on the Segerstrom Hall’s magnificent William J. Gillespie Concert Organ; and the grief-laden and heartfelt Reconciliation, movement III, led by the rich tones of baritone Dashon Burton (truly “beautiful as the sky”).

Then at the heart of the work, came RVW’s magnificently processional setting of Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans, given its full weight, at once lamenting and celebratory, by the Pacific Chorale and Symphony Orchestra under Dr. Istad's authoritative baton. Remarkably, Dirge for Two Veterans was originally written in 1914 and incorporated into Dona Nobis Pacem 22 years later, yet without the slightest sense of stylistic incongruity.

John Bright’s words at the start of movement V “The Angel of Death has been abroad throughout the land”—and indeed the whole work—had, of course, a contemporary relevance that Dr. Istad could not have foreseen when he planned the performance, the first-ever of Dona Nobis Pacem by the Pacific Chorale, before the onset of the Covid pandemic. As it was, the appearance of the colors of the Ukrainian flag across the supertitle screen at the conclusion of this refined but urgent account of Vaughan Williams’ great work was a final underlining of that relevance. “Give us peace”, indeed. 


 Pacific Chorale, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Costa Mesa, 5:00pm, Saturday, May 7, 2021.
Images: The performance: Doug Gifford for Pacific Chorale; Walt Whitman, Caroline Shaw, and Ralph Vaughan Williams: Wikimedia Commons.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2022

At Mason House, Chamber Music Reads the Room

l-r: Steven Vanhauwaert, Alma Fernandez, Cécilia Tsan, Ambroise Aubrun.


Piano Quartet Masterpieces, Mason House, Mar Vista
John Stodder

For all but the most fortunate fans, most music we hear comes through a home stereo, car speakers or earbuds. No matter where it was recorded, we wrest it from that environment to ours. We might listen to the grandeur of Beethoven’s Ninth alone in bed, or an unaccompanied Bach violin sonata while staring through a windshield on the 405. It is easy to forget that before music became so portable, it was usually written for, and presented in, specific environments.

When we say “chamber music,” mostly we think of small ensembles, but the term describes the places where it was performed: not a “church, theater or public concert room,” according to the music historian Charles Burney, but instead a “palace chamber,” or in more egalitarian times, a private home.

A chamber is where over 50 classical music fans found ourselves on Saturday, April 9. Mason House, a small private home in Mar Vista, was remodeled a few years ago with the living and dining room combined into a performance space. Its most recent concert featured violinist Ambroise Aubrun, violist Alma Fernandez, cellist Cécilia Tsan and pianist Steven Vanhauwaert, who played Mason House’s Yamaha C-7 concert grand, with special German hammers to give a softer sound, ideal for chamber music.

What makes chamber music special is intimacy: the ability to hear the slightest change in how the players attack their instruments; how they navigate melodic passages that expand from one instrument to two, three or more, and fit their playing styles together. Chamber music is up close and personal. This concert was memorable in part because we in the audience could feel we were taking the journeys of these works along with each of the wonderful players, hearing nuances that would have been inaudible in a larger hall or outdoors.

Todd Mason.
It was the first Mason House concert of the spring, the kind of serene afternoon when one would expect to hear a piece like Mozart’s Piano Quartet No. 1, the program’s planned opener, but to commemorate Ukraine’s struggle against the Russian invasion, the concert began with Mason’s new arrangement of its National Anthem, whose title, “Shche ne vmerla Ukrainy i slava, i volia” translates to “The glory and freedom of Ukraine has not yet perished.” The anthem had the mournful yet proud sensibility suggested by those words, an anguish that Mason and the quartet conveyed nobly, given the powerful emotions this populist theme evokes today.

Mozart in 1782, three years
 before the composition
of his First Piano Quartet.
From a strictly musical perspective, the inclusion of this impactful piece at the top framed the concert as a study in contrasting emotions. To be sure, as David Brown’s fascinating introduction outlined, the concert was also a journey through the relatively unpopulated realm of the piano quartet, a rarer form than one might have guessed: the Mozart we heard was one of the first piano quartets to be published.

The Mozart performance exerted a steadying influence on audience emotions potentially inflamed by thoughts of war’s horrors. To be able to concentrate on musical details is therapeutic; like the string players’ bowing techniques and how they aligned them into one sound in unison passages, or the carefully modulated way in which Vanhauwaert would control his dynamics and presence within the ensemble.

Brown noted that contemporary audiences in 1785 were frustrated by this work’s “incomprehensible tintamarre of 4 instruments.” What I heard was delightfully comprehensible, and never dull. Mozart in his essence is the composer who presents his music as going in one direction—giving you every reason to think that’s where it’s going—and then plays beguiling games along the way to lead you to think something else might be happening, until you reach a point of surrendering any sense that you know where the piece was going—and then he takes you exactly where you expected in the first place, and you are grateful.

Alma Fernandez.
This quartet—a constant springtime cycling of sunshine, clouds and rain—also felt like a conversation between characters with such a close relationship they can finish each other’s thoughts. My scribbled notes are filled with laudatory comments on bowing, fingering, attacks on strings or keys: the touch of music, not just the sound. It felt brave of these musicians to allow us to hear so much of them, the miracle of their artistry being how the exposure only enhanced our enjoyment.

Mahler aged 18 in 1878, two
years after writing his Piano
The next piece, Mahler’s Piano Quartet Movement in A Minor, pulled us back into the maelstrom of emotions initially aroused by reflecting on Ukraine, then expertly diverted into a haze of joy by Mozart. Mahler’s quartet is notable, as Brown explained, for being the only work of chamber music he wrote that was not lost or destroyed. Mahler was a teen when he wrote it, but it contains the seeds of what his mature compositions are most known for: emotional turmoil, veering from joy to misery.

This piece walked a narrower path, from grief to melancholy to a kind of fearfulness that invoked our collective wartime moment. The quartet leaned powerfully into these emotions, their faces reflecting the mournful mood. It was a gift from the musicians to the audience to allow us to understand the depth of Mahler’s pain, to enable a catharsis. It is also a very different usage of the tools of chamber music, including the space itself and the intimacy it affords.

Brahms in 1886, the year of the Third Piano Quartet.
The first half’s dialectics of chamber music and emotion reached a synthesis after the interval, with Brahms' Piano Quartet No. 3 in C Minor. David Brown called it one of Brahms’ “major statements,” suggesting it is in the same class as other major statements from Brahms with which audiences are more familiar. If you have access to a music library, this quartet is worth seeking out for that reason; to make sure it is in your mind’s Brahms canon alongside the concerti and the symphonies. Whereas Mozart took classical structures and gently subverted them to his own imaginative ends, Brahms created structures that could carry everything he wanted to say, and made us believe that structure had been there forever.

Cécilia Tsan.
The quartet was up to the challenge, taking us everywhere Brahms wanted us to go, from the slowly awakening moments of the opening, to the light-as-a-cat touch on the fascinating, crowd-pleasing scherzo, to the heavenly cello-piano duet at the opening of the third movement, a gorgeous, complex meditation on the topic of deep emotion, as opposed to Mahler’s deep dive into emotion itself. This was mature reflection, with all four musicians rising to the needed rhetorical heights and guiding us to Brahms’ compassionate conclusion.

Ambroise Aubrun and Steven Vanhauwaert.
The fourth movement felt like, among other things, a showcase for the quartet’s virtuosity as well as for the players' mutual respect. Violinist Aubrun and pianist Vanhauwaert were spotlit early, with violist Fernandez and cellist Tsan added to the mix as the composer developed and discovered what he wanted to say in this finale.

In this final movement, I recall feeling as if Papa Brahms had pulled his punches a bit. The first three movements had teed me up for the kind of climactic resolution of his concert hall classics. But the fourth movement seemed more… polite? And so it was. This “major statement” was not a symphony or concerto, but chamber music. We don’t want to alarm anyone. We’re home.


Mason Home Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, April 9, 2022.
Images: The concert: Todd Mason; Mozart, Brahms: Wikimedia Commons; Mahler: Gustav Mahler website.

Sunday, May 8, 2022

Mozart, Da Ponte and the War between the Classes

Sunny Martini

REVIEW: The Marriage of Figaro

McCaw Hall

If Mozart had been asked which of his operas was the most perfect, he surely would have replied, “My Figaro.” Indeed, there is not a superfluous note or misplaced phrase in the brilliant work. The same holds true for his collaborator Da Ponte’s exquisite libretto. If ever an opera could be described as “easy listening” and flawlessly engaging, The Marriage of Figaro would qualify hands down.
Seattle Opera’s season-ending new Figaro production directed by SO perennial favorite Peter Kazaras makes the most of the composer and librettist’s combined genius to mount a rendering of the work that is at once savvy and nostalgic. Says Kazaras, “color-saturated costumes…a set that suggests things are not quite what they seem…a tantalizing backdrop for the tremendous talent of our fabulous performers.” That talent abounded in the opening night cast.

Baritone Ryan McKinny’s much anticipated SO debut as the cunning servant Figaro did not disappoint. Not only is he a consummate vocal artist with remarkable evenness throughout his entire range, he also is a gifted physical comedian with impeccable timing and his characterization was at once subtle and uproarious. With such impressive vocal splendor, one eagerly anticipates his appearance next season as Kurwenal in Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde.
Philip Newton

Equally skillful was Soraya Mafi’s portrayal of Figaro’s soulmate, Susanna. Last seen playing the child Flora (also directed by Kazaras) in Britten’s The Turn of the Screw, Mafi displayed her maturity and onstage star power, playing Susanna as grown up, sophisticated, and ready to take on any challenge that comes her way. Her rendering of Act 4’s Deh vieni, sung with great beauty and tenderness, was a highlight of the evening, and much appreciated by the audience. 

The production was a true reflection of a dual protagonist subject at its core: The Marriage of Figaro meets the Wedding of Susanna. McKinny and Mafi melded perfectly in their equally skillful depictions of the couple of the hour and in their vocal adeptness, each nimbly playing off the other in every scene, culminating in a final reckoning between Mars and Venus that was both pleasing and impressive in its execution.

Making his SO debut as Count Almaviva, Texan baritone Norman Garrett was appropriately unsettling as the nobleman shamelessly trying to exercise his droit de seigneur and paying the price at the hands of women wilier than he. Vocally he was extraordinary: a lush voice that negotiated Almaviva’s wide range, from top to bottom, superbly. Dramatically, he cut a dashing if disturbingly virile figure who will stop at nothing to get his way—until the true power of women stops him in his tracks.

Finnish soprano Marjukka Tepponen as the Countess Almaviva, seen in the 2018 season as another Mozart heroine, Fiordiligi in Cosí fan tutte, was vocally and dramatically convincing in the ensembles and recitatives. In her two arias, however, there was a lack of sureness, especially in the high notes in the virtuoso tour-de-force, Dove sono.
Sunny Martini
Philip Newton
Rounding out the cast was a roster of excellent comprimari: Kevin Burdette (Bartolo), Margaret Gawrysiak (Marcellina), Martin Bakari (Basilio), Anthony Webb (Curzio), Ashley Fabian (Barbarina), and Barry Johnson (Antonio). Among these, Bakari’s Basilio stood out both comedically and vocally. Though the character has relatively little play, when he was active onstage he commanded attention with his riotous horseplay, as exaggerated as successful comedy can be, never failing to entertain.
Philip Newton

Burdette’s La vendetta was skillfully done, and his interactions with Gawrysiak’s Marcellina were fun-loving and touching.

Kazaras made the most of the ingenious opera’s comedic opportunities throughout the evening and captured the Rossini-like chaos and confusion of the act-ending ensembles with aplomb. As always, Kazaras excelled in the small touches that came off as waggish and witty yet subtle; e.g., Figaro’s playfully using the tape measure intended for the bed to measure Susanna. Kazaras also made the “Mother-Father” reveal in Act 3 equally funny and tender, especially between Burdette and Gawrysiak. 

Philip Newton
On the podium, debuting conductor Alevtina Ioffe’s initial impression in the overture was that of a young, energetic and adept chef d’orchestre, with a lively yet not overly hurried tempo. However, a few touches, such as the insistent use of the open “E” string in the violins (which would make any violinist cringe), were grating. And some of the tempi in other sections of the work were rushed, especially in the wedding scene, not allowing the chorus to effectively execute all of Mozart’s wonderful notes.

Belgian set designer Benoît Dugardyn displayed his background as an architect with striking sets for acts 2, 3, and 4 whose immense columns and sparkling chandelier gave a true impression of a wealthy noble seigneur’s palace. Connie Yun’s lighting complemented the sets seamlessly, at times matching the hues in the background with Myung Hee Cho’s exquisitely wrought costumes.

Wade Madsen choreographed a delightful wedding scene replete with Cho’s colorfully clad couples moving about charmingly, either restrained or unrestrained, depending on their station. The fandango clearly was well researched, performed with convincing Spanish panache (excuse the mixed metaphors) by each and every artist onstage.


Photo credits: Philip Newton, Sunny Martini 
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Thursday, May 5, 2022

Pepe Romero Returns in Triumph to Long Beach

Pepe Romero and Eckart Preu discuss Sanlúcar's Medea before their performance
with the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra.


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

Last Saturday evening’s program at the Long Beach Terrace Theater ended with as loud and long an ovation as I can recall there, hailing the performance by the Andalusian guitar virtuoso Pepe Romero, with the LBSO under Music Director Eckart Preu, of the Medea suite by Romero’s long-time friend, the flamenco composer and guitarist Manolo Sanlúcar (b. 1943).

Sanlúcar composed his orchestral ballet Medea in 1984 and though Romero averred, in his engaging pre-concert chat with the conductor, that the work has far more to do with the soul of flamenco and southern Spain than with ancient Greek myth, it would still be interesting to know how the ballet scenario treats the story of the wronged and vengeful queen of Corinth, and in particular how the six movements of the suite, arranged for guitar and orchestra in 2012 by Manuel Barrueco, relate to the original hour-long ballet.

Manolo Sanlúcar in 2013.
The suite itself is a substantial work, running well over half an hour in this performance, though Sanlúcar’s orchestral forces are economical: just double woodwind and two horns, strings (the LBSO fielding a strength of 8-6-4-4-3), timpani, and percussion—the score’s only lavish element, with a four-person line-up playing a wide variety of untuned instruments.

The brief Obertura (Overture) immediately unveils a landscape of bleak minor-key string textures over which a keening line rises and falls on the oboe (Rong-Huey Liu, Principal), to be abruptly interrupted by meditative guitar roulades. A sudden climax segues straight into the second movement, entitled Reencuentro Y Desencuentro (Reunion and Discord), with drums and tambourine leading a kind of threatening processional, and the guitar always present like an agitated spectator.

This cuts off abruptly, and then a long solo guitar introduction leads into the main body of the third movement, Seduccion (Seduction), in which oboe and strings sing a long and hauntingly nostalgic melody with at its heart a tender duet between the guitar and a solo cello (Cécilia Tsan, Principal). The percussion “continuo” returns to usher in the Conjuro (Incantation), its main theme repeated again and again in a hypnotic crescendo until it precipitates La Venganza, this penultimate movement being given onomatopoeic realism by irregular stabbing rhythms á la “Rite of Spring.”

The final movement is Fiesta, but for all its energy, driven again by the percussion and the guitar, the powerful and cumulative sense of menace and inescapable doom that imbues the work as a whole is anything but dissipated as it swirls to its emphatic end.

Due to Covid, this performance took place some three years later than intended, but it was the hugely successful outcome of what had been clearly a passion project for both soloist and conductor. The Medea suite deserves to become as popular as Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, to judge by the audience response, which only increased in fervor when Pepe Romero returned to the stage for an encore, Fantasia Cubana by his father, Celedonio Romero.

The first half of the program had inhabited a different musical universe, and Eckart Preu acknowledged in his pre-concert talk that the only linkage really was that all three works invoked some kind of musical “story-telling”: this being symphonic in the two pieces that occupied the first half.

The works of Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach (1714-1788)—like those of his brother offspring of Johann Sebastian Bach as well as other contemporaries—have in the last half-century or thereabouts become so much the province of “period” or HIP (historically informed) performers in small venues that it was quite a novelty to hear one of his symphonies played by (relatively) large forces on modern instruments in a big hall like this.

Straddling the Baroque and Classical eras, C.P.E. Bach’s 20-or-so symphonies are all relatively small in scale, in three movements rather than four, and only his last set, written in 1775-76, add pairs of flutes, oboes, and horns to the strings (here at the same strength as used in Medea). Preu and the LBSO opened the concert with the third of these, the Symphony in F Major H. 665.

Carl Philipp Emanuel Bach.
Despite the Terrace Theater’s somewhat cavernous acoustic, in the Allegro di molto first movement C.P.E.’s characteristic alternation of tuttis with quiet solo interjections from the winds retained its sharpness of contrast, and the hugeness of the space actually accentuated the strange, glacial passage of softly shifting string harmonies (played with very little vibrato) that cut off the first movement’s onward rush—remarkably C.P.E. does this without changing the tempo marking—in preparation for the brief, but equally spectral Larghetto.

The final Presto, with first half repeat present but not (I think) the second half, was suitably bustling, and the audience reaction was warmly respectful, if not hugely enthusiastic. If the inclusion of this type of work in an LBSO concert can be regarded as an experiment, then this was a qualified success.

Much less of an experiment in this context was Joseph Haydn’s Symphony No. 104 in D major Hob. I/104. Eighteen years C.P.E. Bachs’s junior, Haydn had, by the time C.P.E penned his last set, already written numerous symphonies—some of them considerably more ambitious in scale and structurally adventurous—and he was only a couple of years older than C.P.E. had then been when in 1795 he wrote this, his final masterpiece in the genre. (Another parallel between the two composers is that, having finally relinquished the symphonic genre, both went on in their old age to compose substantial quantities of choral music.)

Joseph Haydn.
The performance was notably energetic and committed, with Preu seeming to relish Haydn’s subtle and not-so-subtle musical jokes, as in the Andante (kept moving here) where the aging composer apparently pretends to lose his way, or nod off, only to jerk awake with a sudden fortissimo.

The third movement Menuetto went with an infectious “Viennese” lilt, and Preu made the first and last movements more in scale with each other than they sometimes are by the omission of the initial Adagio—Allegro’s exposition repeat, but then the inclusion of the comparable repeat in the final Allegro spiritoso. Haydn is still too often absent from concert halls compared with, say, Mozart and Beethoven. More please!

Eckart Preu introduces Haydn's Symphony No. 104.


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, April 30, 2022,
8 p.m.
Images: The performers: Caught in the Moment Photography; Sanlúcar, C.P.E. Bach, Haydn: Wikimedia Commons.

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Friday, April 29, 2022

Flying the Flags for Ukraine & South Bay Chamber Music


Ukraine Benefit Concert, Temple Israel, Long Beach
South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

Cécilia Tsan.
Two cello/piano recitals were given last weekend in the South Bay area, and a joint review of both seems appropriate as each included the same single genre piece by one composer, while between them the two events encompassed another composer’s complete output in that same genre.

More importantly, however, the second concert, hosted by Temple Israel, Long Beach, was specifically organized by the cellist Cécilia Tsan as a fundraiser for Ukraine, and opened with a somber account of the Ukrainian national anthem. The donations website remains open, and can be accessed by clicking here or on the flag above. 

Timothy Durkovic
The work common to both recitals was Debussy’s Sonate pour Violoncelle et Piano, L144, and the performance by Ms. Tsan and Timothy Durkovic (piano) which formed the climax of their benefit concert was as passionately heartfelt as was her introduction to the event. The implacable determination of the Sostenuto e molto risoluto marking which heralds the sonata's Prologue was as fully realized by the players as was the capricious spontaneity of the succeeding Sérénade and linked Finale, where they negotiated all the quasi-improvisatory twists and turns of Debussy’s score with seeming effortlessness.

Claude Debussy.
This marvelous performance slightly put in the shade the very fine account of the same work that, two evenings before, had ended the first half of the South Bay Chamber Music Society’s last concert in its 2021-22 season, by Eric Byers (cello) and Steven Vanhauwaert (piano) in LA Harbor College’s concert hall. Listening to the sonata in both of these fine acoustics, it was impossible not to reflect on Debussy’s situation as he wrote it in 1915—a French patriot tormented by the war’s impact on his country, and already ill with the cancer that would kill him less than three years later amidst the German bombardment of his beloved Paris.

Eric Byers.
If (to grossly over-simplify) Ms. Tsan dwelt on the emotionally expressive aspects of Debussy’s cello writing, Mr. Byers seemed rather to relish its timbral resourcefulness—an impression perhaps enhanced by the fact that his and Mr. Vanhauwaert's performance immediately followed their account of the Three Meditations from Leonard Bernstein’s Mass, the huge “theater piece for singers, players and dancers” that he composed for the inauguration of Washington D.C.’s Kennedy Center in 1971.

The original production of Mass at the Kennedy Center.

Critically castigated at the time, Mass came in from the cold when it was revived during the 2018 Bernstein centenary, in particular through an acclaimed new complete recording under Marin Alsop. Though Bernstein's voluble religious questionings remain for some listeners one of the less relatable aspects of his art, these Meditations, arranged for cello and piano from the orchestral originals that form the 12th, 17th, and 25th sections of the complete Mass, certainly form a way into at least one aspect of the work.

Steven Vanhauwaert.
I have doubts that the resulting triptych adds up to a coherent whole, but Byers and Vanhauwaert were clearly committed to the Three Meditations, sparing nothing of the cello line’s fractured, angular intensity, punctuated by thunderous piano dissonances, pizzicati so intense that the strings thwacked off the cello’s fingerboard and, to open and close the last Meditation, rhythmic taps from Mr. Vanhauwaert's fingers on the piano structure to simulate the sound of bongos.

Robert Schumann.
No contrast could have been greater than the preceding item, an account of the Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70, by Schumann, as forthrightly intense in the Adagio as the Allegro was fleet. Before that, their recital had opened with the gently mournful Two Pieces composed by the 15-year-old Anton Webern in 1899, his earliest work to have survived and a universe away expressively from his atonal and hyper-aphoristic Drei Kleine Stücke Op. 11 (1914)—a skillful piece of programming by Byers and Vanhauwaert to open their second half.

Anton Webern.
The three pieces contain a mere 9, 13, and 10 measures respectively and are all over in under two minutes, but the score is deluged with detailed markings—more indications as to timbre, dynamic, expression, attack, etc., than there are actual notes—and the players’ performance was a minor miracle of attentiveness to all these.

Gabriel Fauré, by
John Singer Sargent.
The first work programmed in Tsan's and Durkovic’s benefit concert, Fauré’s Élégie Op. 24, maintained the mood of grieving. Mr. Durkovic’s clear articulation of the repeated C minor chords that led into the main theme on the cello were a welcome corrective to some more histrionic and soulful interpretations, while the contrast was literally breathtaking between Ms. Tsan’s first forte statement of that theme and the mere thread of tone, virtually without vibrato, with which she articulated its immediate pianissimo restatement.

The two recitals joined hands again with the inclusion by Byers and Vanhauwaert in their SBCMS recital of Brahms’ Cello Sonata No. 2 in F major, Op. 99 of 1886 and—as the centerpiece of their Ukraine fundraiser—Tsan's and Durkovic's performance of his Cello Sonata No. 1 in E minor, Op. 38, of which Brahms wrote the first two movements in 1862 (plus an Adagio which he later discarded) and then the Allegro finale three years later. 

Johannes Brahms in 1889, 
three years after the composition
of his Cello Sonata No. 2.
Tsan's and Durkovic’s account avoided the pitfall of overdoing the non troppo aspect of the first sonata’s initial Allegro non troppo marking. In some performances this, together with the inclusion of the long exposition repeat, can make the first movement seem interminable, but their forward-pressing performance was rich and elegiac rather than doomily dragging, and with the omission of that repeat made the first movement more equal in scale with its two successors.

Equally well caught were the bittersweet courtliness of the Menuetto and Trio, and their immaculate ensemble in the Allegro finale’s torrential contrapuntal writing made for some edge-of-seat listening as the movement swept to its dark conclusion.

After the Debussy sonata, the brief Largo third movement of Chopin’s Cello Sonata in G minor Op. 65 made a touching encore and exeunt to this memorable hour of music-making in the best of causes, which so far has raised almost $15,000 for victims of the Ukraine war.

Finally, back to Byers' and Vanhauwert's South Bay Chamber Music Society recital. In complete contrast to the minor-key homogeneity of Brahms’ first cello sonata, his second sonata is far more varied in mood and texturally adventurous, with much use of cello pizzicato and tremolando effects on both instruments.

Performing the work as their final item, Byers and Vanhauwert were equally masters of the first movement’s wide-ranging drama (complete with exposition repeat), the tender processional of the Adagio affetuoso, the scherzo’s impulsive, improvisatory character, and the concise, exuberant finale. It would be difficult to imagine a finer conclusion to the SBCMS's first post-Covid season. 


Ukraine Benefit Concert, Temple Israel, Long Beach, Sunday, April 24, 2022,
3:00 p.m.
South Bay Chamber Music Society, LA Harbor College, Friday, April 22, 2022, 8:00 p.m. (repeated at the Pacific Unitarian Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, Sunday, April 24, 2022, 3:00 p.m.)

Images: Cécilia Tsan: Courtesy LA Phil; Timothy Durkovic: artist website; Debussy: Piano Street; Eric Byers: artist website; Steven Vanhauwaert: artist website; Schumann, Webern, Fauré, Brahms: Wikimedia Commons.

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Thursday, April 21, 2022

Lawrence Brownlee Speaks as He Sings: Gloriously


INTERVIEW: Lawrence Brownlee

McCaw Hall, Seattle

On Friday, April 29, one of the shining stars of the opera world will bring his outstanding artistry to the stage of McCaw Hall. Lawrence Brownlee is one of today’s leading bel canto singers. Having honed his craft in Seattle Opera’s Young Artist program, Brownlee has become a fixture at the Metropolitan Opera, Teatro all Scala, and the Royal Opera House. 

On his much-anticipated program Brownlee, accompanied by pianist Shelby Rhoades, will perform classic Italian art songs, operatic arias, spirituals and more. He is also delightful company and expressed himself as articulately when speaking as he does when singing.

ERICA MINER: Welcome back to Seattle! You recently knocked our collective socks off with your performance in Rossini’s Le Comte Ory. What was your journey to the opera stage? 

LAWRENCE BROWNLEE: It started in high school. I didn’t know much about classical music back then. I knew more about musical theatre, madrigal singing, jazz, typical show choir music—the music I knew from school. I grew up in the church, so I have a strong background in gospel music, not necessarily classical. I had a high school teacher who told me that the tone of my voice suited opera in classical music. Through his urging and support I was invited to take part in a program for gifted music students at the university in my hometown of Youngstown, Ohio. At the culmination of this ten-week intensive training, we had to give a recital. I was singing in the classical style for the first time. I got a standing ovation. It kind of shocked me. I wasn’t expecting that. I just thought the program was something fun to do in my last year of high school. A gentleman there approached my father and me: “Where are you from. Who are you?” he said. “I don’t know if you realize what type of amazing talent you have.” It was his suggesting—his “chorusing,” I like to say, for me to come there and study with him at Youngstown State University. His name was David Starkey. He had been a singer, a teacher, he did stuff in Europe and Germany, but not a big international career. He thought I had something special. It was there that I began the journey of classical music and opera, though I was singing more art songs then. He made me believe I had something special. I went to college thinking I would be a lawyer and taking music on the side. I entered a few competitions. Then my voice teacher after Mr. Starkey had me transfer to a school in Indiana. My teacher there had the same type of enthusiasm for my voice, that I had something really special. After winning a few competitions, I believed I had something and began to work on my instrument and craft. I was advancing, being singled out time and time again. So I thought, “Maybe there’s something here. Forget being a lawyer. If it doesn’t work out with the singing I can go back and try to be a lawyer later on. But I want to see where this leads me.” I had really good instruction, teachers, and opportunities. All that led to where I am today.

EM: You were right. You do have something special.

LB: [Laughs]

EM: Your recital here includes art songs, Mozart arias, Kurt Weill and spirituals. Can you give us some details?

LB: Happy to. I’ve done this concert, “Song of my Youth,” a few times. All these songs were important to me in the beginning of my career. For example, the very first classical piece I sang was Tu lo sai from the “24 Italian Songs and Arias.” The first French piece I ever sang, the first German piece, the first aria. All of these have meaning to me, things that got me excited, that I worked on my craft. They planted seeds for me to endeavor other things. I remember when I sang them as an 18-year-old, very bright-eyed and bushy tailed, very green unrefined singer. Coming back to these pieces more than 30 years later, I realize these are great gems of beauty that can be very expressive and meaningful for someone who’s 18 or 50, which I am going to be in November.

EM: You’re doing arias from Don Giovanni, Magic Flute, Street Scene.

LB: Yes. Tamino’s Dies Bildnis, my first opera role. Street Scene was the first aria I ever sang in English. I’m known for having a flexible voice, so I had to put something with movement on it. Il Mio Tesoro was one of the first I sang with movement. I’m singing “Sally Garden,” my first English piece. Après un Reve. Even before I tried to become an opera singer, in church and the tradition of gospel, I sang spirituals that are meaningful to me. This is full circle, all the things that contributed to my education as a singer are a part of this recital. That’s why this is called “Songs of my Youth”—returning to these pieces that got me on the road to where I am today.

EM: How wonderful. I’m so impressed with how articulate you are in expressing yourself verbally.

LB: [Laughs] That’s very kind.

EM: I thoroughly enjoyed your CD, Amici e Rivali, which I reviewed when it came out, one of over a dozen you’ve made. Do you have plans for another one soon?

LB: A couple of things are in the pipeline. I’m currently working on a project attached to a tour next spring, on African American composers, about the Harlem Renaissance. Several young, gifted composers already have agreed to be a part of this. I’m waiting on some of the last confirmations now. That album is planned. Erin Morley and I have been discussing doing a bel canto duet CD, similar to the one I did with Michael Spyres. Both of us are trying to juggle our schedules, pairing up with the orchestra and conductor. We’re very invested and eager to make that happen. A couple more opera recordings, something with Lisette Oropesa in a year or two. I’m looking forward to a few other projects on the horizon planning around my career and the others I’m collaborating with. While I’m in relatively good voice I hope to put them “down on wax,” as they used to say.

EM: Coincidentally, I just interviewed Erin a couple of weeks ago for her La Scala debut last week. She’s also a delight, so the two of you together—I can’t wait.

LB: [Laughs] We’re looking forward. We’ve never shared the stage before, but next spring we’ll do that new production of The Magic Flute at the Met. Tamino and Pamina.

EM: Heaven. This question is actually from my husband, who’s French and is a big fan of yours. He says, “You make everything you sing seem effortless. Is it as effortless as it sounds?”

LB: [Laughs] I’m definitely working at it. One of my early teachers—I’ve had a total of 4 major teachers over my 30+ years of studying—said singing should be an extension of speaking. Another one said, you need to make something difficult sound easy, to work to be the Master of it and never let it be the Master of you. They were looking to me to try and create that illusion, that it sounds effortless, like I just woke up and could sing it. My approach to doing anything is to find my own way to make that seem as if written for me. There is much work going on, but I have found myself working in the bel canto arena, and that gives me an understanding of the style, which makes everything appear easier. I’ve always had a very flexible voice, a very high tessitura that I maintain that was a part of my natural attributes from the vocal standpoint. I felt I’ve always been in the right place as far as what I was presenting in my stage career. On the subject of French, before we spoke I was in my studio with my piano, getting ready to go to Paris National Opera to do a French baroque piece, Platée by Rameau, which I’m completely out of water [Laughs]. It’s an entirely French cast, conductor, and stage director. That is going to be a real challenge for me. I speak a decent amount of French, but I think I’m going to make significant strides, because I’ll be forced to do so. I’m looking forward to it.

EM: Rameau in Paris. What could be better. New topic. You’re known for your activism for diversity in the industry, and for advocating for opera as an art form. Could you address that, and Cycles of My Being

LB: Cycles of My Being ties into my being an advocate for the art form. A friend of mine, Jason Moran, the fantastic jazz pianist, and educator, and I were doing something for NPR, a field recording of the song, “There’s a man going around taking names.” The piece was featured in a movie by Ava DuVernay, Thirteen, about the 13th amendment. Jason and I were talking about using our art as a platform, how it gives us an opportunity to talk about things that are close to our heart. This was at a time where a lot of things were on the Internet, in the newspapers. Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, all the stories we heard of police brutality, police aggression, constantly before our eyes. It meant something to us to use our art form to speak about that. I remember preparing a recital for the next season at Carnegie Hall. They approached me and said what would you like to do. I said I’d like to sing Robert Schumann’s song cycle Dichterliebe, and couple it with another song cycle. I thought, wouldn’t it be great to do a song cycle that speaks to the experience of Black men in America. What we deal with, our reality, knowing that when I wake up in the morning my reality and potential are much different than someone who has blond hair and blue eyes. My skin, this house I walk around in, are going to be viewed in a certain way, people are going to assume certain things about me before I open my mouth to speak. These people don’t know who I am but limit what I can be. It would be great to talk about our existence in ways people can understand; I wanted to take my own experiences along with a young African American composer and librettist to come up with something that speaks to what it is to be a Black man.

I paired myself with Tyshawn Sorey, a MacArthur Genius Grant award winner, a wonderful avant garde composer with some crazy, beautiful ideas. Along with Terrance Hayes, who’s very provocative, in your face, asking questions about life, calling into question things we have dealt with being Black people. We all came together to create Cycles of My Being. For us to be able to talk about love, hope, hate, so many other issues, that people can understand we have the same desires as you. We want to be fathers and husbands, contribute to society and be law abiding citizens. But our reality sometimes—the path to that is not as easy. The first piece says, “America, I see you hiss and stare. Do you love the air in me as I love the air in you? Do you have the same love for me as I have for you?” I’m proud to be a Black American. But when you think of the men who came back from the war, who died for this country, put their lives on the line, were treated as second class citizens. So many other things that have been a part of the structure of the DNA of the United States. We go on to talk about what hope means for us. My hope is simple as imagining I have a better life in a way that’s different from someone who has the “golden ticket.” A heterosexual white man who grew up in whatever type of financial situation has the best advantage to be successful in our country. Hoping for me is to be able to have access to things others take for granted.

Cycles of my Being has been very cathartic for me. I’ve taken it from Provo, Utah, 99.99% Caucasian, to New York City and Chicago, which are decidedly different from Utah. It's been such a wonderful experience for me. All of those places I’ve taken this, it’s been so positively received. Having this done by all Black men who can push the question, ask about hate. Why do you hate me—is it because you envy something about me? A lot of difficult things to listen to but that was by design. To do it in a way people would be uneasy but could listen and it would start some type of dialogue within them, to begin to think of things in a different way. Eventually being anti-racist, a supporter of equality. Cycles was a passion project of love, one I will be happy to take around. 

Tying into the other part of the question. In my life, in my experiences, I am an activist outspoken for diversity and initiative. Even when I was in high school, my choir was very diverse. Our (female) teacher talked about brotherhood, love for mankind. That’s in my DNA. Even in my family. I’m one of 6 kids. Being a part of a bigger group, a larger ecosystem, a fraternity. It’s built in that we should be outgoing, to give a hand to help others. All the things I’ve done in my life, my career, have led up to that. I take it as a responsibility that I’m meant to do, to reach out to and help others. To be a spokesperson is very close to my heart that I hope to be doing as long as I can.

EM: I applaud your passion. I saw some episodes of your Facebook Live series The Sitdown with LB. What were some of your most memorable moments?

LB: I had so much fun in that series talking to so many of my friends and colleagues. People that I admired as a young singer. Obviously George Shirley, a person who was so important for me as a young singer of color, a tenor specifically. He’s been a friend and mentor. To see him at 87 years old, sharp as a tack, and to recount his experiences, some of the difficulties in his career, his love and passion for being a teacher, an educator. That was meaningful for so many people. Talking to Simon Estes was a lot of fun, similar to Mr. Shirley. Martina Arroyo, Vinson Cole. Even some of the younger singers. Will Liverman is a good friend. Pretty Yende, Angel Blue. Talking to all these people about their careers, their struggles—by design about being an African American singer. It wasn’t just about African American, it was their passions, hobbies. Denyce Graves talked about cooking. Later she told me she created a spinoff cooking show during the pandemic when we were all at home and had the opportunity to be in one place, to create and develop. I haven’t done any series in about 6 months, but a lot of people have told me they’d like to see more episodes so more will be coming soon. It’s fun to engage, to be the interviewer sometimes instead of the interviewee [Laughs].

EM: Those are names of people I adore, and one of those names is Larry Brownlee. I feel so blessed to be able to talk to you and have enjoyed it thoroughly.

LB: It’s been so nice speaking with you. And thank you for those nice things you’ve said. We are interviewed often, but this has been an especially pleasant one, and I appreciate your part in it. It’s been very delightful. Thank you so much.

EM: The pleasure is all mine. Thank you, Larry, for spending time with me. I look forward to seeing you onstage! 


Photo credits: Shervin Lainez
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]