Friday, August 14, 2020

Stilwell, Part 2: In Perilous Times, Music is a Savior

James Scholz

INTERVIEW: Richard Stilwell 

Chicago Lyric Opera

EM: Besides the Argento and Pasatieri premieres, you also debuted Lidholm’s A Dream Play. Do you find performing new operas especially challenging, or enjoy singing something new

RS: Yes, challenging and exciting. A lot of repertoire you do over and over, while finding new things within those pieces, but something totally new is interesting. Certain contemporary operas are more challenging than others. Pasatieri’s Seagull and Lidholm’s Dream Play were quite tonal and great fun. I also did Pasatieri’s Ines de Castro with Baltimore Opera. I was a good friend of Tom’s and it was special having a piece written for you. He’d say, “Would you like a high ‘G’ here?” And I’d say, “Yeah, that’d be great.” [Laughs]

EM: Nothing like knowing the composer.

RS: Argento’s works, however, do present challenges. In addition to The Aspern Papers, which is more tonal, I also did his Voyage of Edgar Allen Poe at Chicago Lyric. That was a beast. Tough, quite atonal, but powerful, wonderful once learned. In that realm is the music of Unsuk Chin, a South Korean who’s mostly lived in Europe, Germany. She wrote an Alice in Wonderland, which I learned for Geneva Opera late in my career. She had been a student of Ligeti, which may give you a clue as to her style. Very atonal, spiky, difficult. But once learned it was an exciting production. The style worked for this bizarre “mind trip” of this familiar tale. I was the King of Hearts [Laughs]. But I loved working with Argento, a wonderful man. I visited him several times in his home in Minneapolis. Great guy.

EM: You’ve also done recordings. The Met Bohème, for example.

RS: Magic in the air. The cast all loved working with Franco Zeffirelli. We knew it would be recorded and telecast “Live via Satellite.” I adored working with Teresa Stratas, especially our 3rd act scene together. Such a terrific singer-actress. I remember seeing her in Mahagonny. I loved it. You really had to up your game when onstage with her. I think we fed off each other’s characters very well. I also loved Carreras, who had done Bohème with me at NYCO in 1972 when he first came to the States. We got to know each other then. Being a part of that longest continually running production in the Met’s history, that’s pretty special.

EM: I was in the orchestra when Zeffirelli created it. People will always come to see it.

RS: Then singing on the soundtrack of the Oscar-winning Amadeus, another wonderful memory.

EM: Did you do Don Giovanni?

RS: Yes, and the Count in Figaro. [Sings] “Contessa, perdono.” The director, Miloš Forman, wanted me to actually be in the movie. But I would have had to cancel an important Met contract. I asked him through my agent how much time was involved. He said, “We really have no idea.” [Laughs] They ended up spending many months there in Prague. That was one regret that I couldn’t be in it, but it still was amazing to have been part of that soundtrack. The Falstaff film with Götz Friedrich was probably the hardest project I’d ever undertaken. We recorded the soundtrack first with the Vienna Phil under Solti, then moved to these vast film studios in West Berlin to record the video. The singers had to lip sync to the soundtrack while creating the visual. It was tough coordinating, tedious work shooting from different camera angles several times a shot, 12 to 14 hours every day 7 days a week for 5 weeks. The final product turned out very well, We were all totally exhausted by the finish. But it was memorable. Gabriel Bacquier did Falstaff, another one of my vocal heroes.

EM: And Leppard’s Il Ritorno d’Ulisse?

Guy Gravett
RS: That was special. The cast had just done 10 performances at Glyndebourne, then we took the train to London to record. Dear Flicka was Penelope. I was one lucky baritone regarding this opera, one of my favorites. In ’73 I had made my debut at Glyndebourne singing Ulysses opposite Dame Janet Baker. From Baker to von Stade was a dream come true. Working with Peter Hall directing was just phenomenal. Music theatre at its best. I was even able to use my archery skills from when I was younger. There’s a scene where Ulysses kills off the suitors. I had archery practice a couple of times a week. The production won all sorts of awards in England. The recording was nominated for a best opera recording Grammy in 1981. Pretty special.

EM: You’ve done quite a long stint at Chicago Lyric Opera.

RS: I performed in more productions with Lyric than any other house, like 15 seasons. Some all-time favorites like Gluck’s Orfeo, a gorgeous production choreographed by the great George Balanchine. He actually choreographed me moving between the dancers—not dancing, mind you, that wouldn’t work—but rhythmic walking, very special. I did the Hal Prince Butterfly production. He was wonderful to work with. He didn’t do that many operas, but he created a wonderful production. I think it was shown on PBS’s Great Performances. A Faust with the superstar cast of Mirella Freni, Nicolai Ghiaurov, and Alfredo Kraus, also televised. The Argento Edgar Allen Poe was a highlight, as was Sir David McVicar’s Billy Budd, in which I sang Mr. Redburn. I did Ponnelle’s Don Giovanni. I’ve always loved Chicago, Kerry’s hometown. The teaching job at Chicago College of Performing Arts came from a phone call from my dear friend Judy Haddon, who still is teaching there. My singing career was slowly winding down. I decided to accept that part-time job, commuting between D.C. and Chicago. My in-laws lived nearby in Evanston. I stayed with them and assisted with their needs over the years. Payback for the generosity they had shown Kerry and me. Kerry’s mother Barbara was one of my favorite people in the world. I adored her enough to write an extended epic poem about her, “Ode to Barbara.” I recited it at her funeral. I was able to teach and be a family caregiver for 18 years. My colleagues were like family. David Holloway, Michael Best. Our Dean used to call the 4 of us his “Met Quartet.” Through the years were many other teaching colleagues: Cynthia Clarey, Alan Glassman.

EM: Small world, opera. Are there any roles you haven’t performed that you wish you had?

RS: Not many, in a career spanning almost 45 years, plus 18 years teaching. I was very fortunate. My other love is Broadway musicals. I did manage to squeeze in productions of South Pacific, Man of la Mancha, Kiss Me, Kate, Kismet.

EM: Is that all?

RS: [Laughs] I would have loved doing Sondheim’s A Little Night Music, the role of Fredrik. That would have been a lot of fun. I missed out singing Wolfram in Tannhäuser, the only Wagnerian role I might have, or should have, done. I was contracted for a Peter Sellars production at Brooklyn Academy of Music. The funding was lost for some reason and the project was canceled. I’ve sung that aria many times. I missed out performing Papageno at historic Teatro Colón in Buenos Aires. At that time, 1973, when I had my contract, Perón regained power in Argentina and nationalized the theatre. I received notice just weeks before my departure for South America that my contract was void and invalid because it was signed under the old regime. Perhaps it was just as well. People were being killed every day on the streets. Not such a good time to be there. There was political stuff going in Milano when I was there. The Communists were marching one day, the Fascists the next. The early 70s were really—we think about today, but looking back, lots going on.

EM: Overall, though, it sounds like you’ve gotten to do dream work.

RS: I’ve been really fortunate. No regrets.

EM: We’ve been lucky to see and hear you.

RS: Thank you, I appreciate it.

EM: On a somewhat sobering note, could you talk about the effect that Covid-19 has had on you personally?

RS: Since I’ve been retired from the music world for a few years, Covid has not affected me musically. I’ve been quarantined with my wife, rarely venturing out. However, we have been frustrated in not being able to visit with our new 4 ½-month-old grandson, our one and only grandchild, who lives near San Francisco, to hold or cuddle him. Thankfully we can visit via FaceTime. That keeps us from going insane. 

EM: And its effects on the music world in general?

RS: I get very emotional hearing sad stories of many colleagues who have lost jobs, forced to pick up and move or downsize just to pay rent and mortgage. Everyone is frightened and suffering, especially as the virus remains unchecked in much of the country. Very few are working at all. Those few who’ve gotten European contracts are being locked out because America has failed with protocol procedures. It’s very grim, not only for opera but for all the arts. I do think things will turn around, but very slowly. We can only hope the damage will not be irreparable. We’ve suffered as a country the last 20 years but always rebounding. I used to do “Food for Thought” lectures and talked about the economic meltdown of 2009 and 9-11, about the importance of the arts at such times. What I said then applies to today’s pandemic. 

EM: Could you share that with us?

RS: It’s this: “The world is in a perilous state with war, famine, flood and disease. It seems we’re facing calamities of a Biblical nature. Our country is in crisis, which forces me once again to question the intrinsic worth of our simple endeavors to communicate a convincing message. What does it really matter how we relate a song and touch a heart? I honestly believe there is great worth in our efforts, even more so in perilous times…We strive to be artists creating pictures with our voices the way painters highlight and make shadows with their brushes. We strive to be poets with the text of a song, delivering a message which will touch the depths of the soul or create laughter, relieving tension brought on by such woes. We strive to be fine actors, creating space and time of another era. In that sense we become historical educators. Ultimately we render music to an audience of racial, cultural and ethnic differences, knowing the message we impart has none of these boundaries. In that sense we become ambassadors of the arts to all people.” So if we have to do it virtually for a while, so be it. We must improvise and perform in any way possible while still remaining safe.

EM: We’ve all had some bad moments, but personally it’s been music that’s saved me.

RS: Absolutely. I’m listening to music more now than in many years, rediscovering things that I’d forgotten. There are some upsides to this craziness. Music is a savior.

EM: When this is all over, think how glorious it will feel to see our wonderful artists get up onstage and share their talents in the noble cause of music, having been deprived of it for who knows how long.

RS: I’m tearing up, thinking about it. This world is made better by music and the people who make music. It will come back.

EM: We have to have hope. And on that note, thank you, Richard, for so generously sharing your experiences and philosophies with us.

RS: Thank you so much, Erica. 


Photo credits: James Scholz, Guy Gravett, Szabo
Erica can be reached at: [email protected] 

Richard Stilwell: From Rock n' Roll to the Met

Jack Mitchell
Jack Mitchell

INTERVIEW: Richard Stilwell 

Metropolitan Opera, New York

Baritone Richard Stilwell is surely one of Saint Louis’s favorite sons. From his childhood growing up in the iconic midwestern city to his stint in the U.S. Army chorus and ultimately to the stages of the most prestigious opera houses on the planet, the exquisite voice, dramatic stage presence and winning personality of this Grammy-nominated artist have garnered kudos throughout the opera world and beyond. His singing, in a word: ravishing. 

Now retired, mention of the renowned singer’s name still evokes impressive respect and genuine admiration. I was fortunate enough to capture his attention for the following interview—and to be regaled with some of his singing.

Erica Miner: How would you describe your journey to the opera stage?

Richard Stilwell: Unlikely, considering my young years. I loved singing from a very early age, in church and high school. I had never been exposed to the world of opera, nor classical music, before late high school years. I grew up with Pop, Rock n’ Roll, Gospel and Country Music— everything but classical. My first taste of opera was hearing Mario Lanza on an LP from the soundtrack of the movie The Great Caruso in a record shop in St. Louis when I was about 17. I stood enthralled for a long time before asking the salesman what kind of music that was. I’d never heard anything like it. He said, “Italian opera,” and explained a little about it. I bought the LP, played it over and over, totally mesmerized by the power and passion of Lanza’s voice singing those arias. The door to opera had been opened and would never close again.

EM: What happened next?

RS: I attended a Liberal Arts college and had my first voice lessons—a total revelation. But this school was not my cup of tea. I dropped out, worked a year in a shoe warehouse and through a family friend learned of the St. Louis Opera Guild. I was getting the music bug, so I sang for the director, Dorothy Ziegler, and was hired to sing Silvio in Pagliacci and one of the Gypsies in Carmen. Dorothy set up a recital to introduce me to Mozart and others, and took me under her wing, like a mentor. When she accepted a position at Indiana University in Bloomington for the following school year, she suggested I audition for the Music School. I was accepted as a music major, was cast in several operas in the next 2 years, entered the Met National Council auditions and advanced to the finals (1965). Rudolph Bing’s assistant John Gutman, a judge in St. Louis, had advanced me to the finals. He gave me some great advice as to what rep I should sing. My studies were interrupted, though, by the Vietnam War and the “dreaded draft,” as we called it. My student deferment had run out and I was reclassified as “1A”, which meant I was about to be drafted! Time to push the Panic Button [Laughs]. Fortunately I had heard of the US Army chorus at Ft. Myers in Arlington, Va. I auditioned, was accepted and spent 3 years serving my country in this esteemed ensemble of top-notch voices. I was lucky to get in. Otherwise I would have been sent to Vietnam and probably ended up with my name on the Memorial Wall in Washington.

EM: Perish the thought!

RS: After that, in 1969, I moved to New York City and connected with Matthew Epstein at Columbia Artists Management. The next year I made my New York City Opera debut in their Pelléas. By luck, my lyric baritone was well suited to the role. I was with them until 1975, when I made my Met debut. That was how the journey unfolded.

Beth Bergman
EM: Right time, place, people.

RS: Oh yes.

EM: How important have Santa Fe Opera and Glyndebourne been in your career?

RS: Extremely important for my operatic growth. For several years I was hired by one or the other of these two summer festivals. Santa Fe Opera introduced me to Frederica von Stade, whom you know well [Laughs]. We did Pelléas and Mélisande in 1972, then collaborated on several concerts and productions. Other wonderful Santa Fe productions were Offenbach’s La Grande Duchesse de Gerolstein, Magic Flute, Butterfly, Fledermaus, Capriccio, Dialogues of the Carmelites, Ariadne auf Naxos, and Eugene Onegin. During the “auspicious summer” of 1980, I met my wife-to-be there, Kerry McCarthy, an apprentice artist with the company. We were married 3 years later. Just last summer our younger son was married there on the opera grounds, right where I had first met Kerry. We obviously have fond memories of Santa Fe, one of my favorite places on earth. Glyndebourne was important for the quality of casting, musical preparation, and beauty of the location. They drew from the top tier of worldwide talent. It was magical, very special. I performed with Dame Janet Baker, Elisabeth Söderstrom, Flicka, and many other wonderful artists.

EM: Which operas did you perform?

RS: Return of Ulysses was my debut. Then Capriccio, directed by the wonderful John Cox, Figaro, and a wonderful production of Onegin, with directors like Peter Hall of the London Shakespeare Company. The owners of the manor house where the opera was located, Sir George and Lady Mary Christie, were superb hosts. We had become close friends. Top-notch conductors: Sir Andrew Davis, Raymond Leppard, Sir John Pritchard, Bernard Haitink. I remember many long walks in the fabulous English gardens. Nature at its finest. I was into bird photography and captured nesting mute swans with newly hatched cygnets. My Onegin director was Michael Hadgimischev, a Bulgarian whose father had been in the Russian court of Czar Nicholas. As a boy Michael been part of this royal milieu. Imagine!

EM: He must have had incredible stories.

RS: [Laughs] He spoke about 6 languages fluently and would go back and forth between German, Bulgarian, English, French, on a dime. He knew more about Pushkin’s Russia than just about anybody around at the time. What a connection to history and the arts, particularly this Tchaikovsky opera, something so well remembered from that festival.

Guy Gravett 
EM: How exciting was it to make your Met debut as Guglielmo in Mozart’s Così fan tutte? (1975)

RS: Very. As you can imagine from all your years in the Met Orchestra, a highlight of one’s career. One of Mozart’s most celebrated masterpieces on that stage was just mind-blowing for me, a dream come true. A long, long way from church solos and high school gigs.

EM: And Rock ‘n Roll?

RS: [Laughs] Yes.

EM: It must have been nerve-wracking.

RS: I wasn’t too nervous about it. I had spent 5 years at City Opera doing good work and felt I was up and rolling. Obviously a big deal, but more exciting than nervous making. My colleagues were all wonderful. Elizabeth Harwood, who unfortunately was taken from us much too soon, a beautiful lyric soprano. Anne Howells, mezzo, Ryland Davies, tenor from Yorkshire, Renato Capecchi, Colette Boky. Harwood, Howells and Davies I had known from Glyndebourne. We all made our Met debuts simultaneously. There was much to mutually celebrate—a family affair.

EM: Was that why you felt so comfortable, singing with people you felt close to?

RS: It was. An old, well-worn production. We had a good time with it.

EM: I’m sure that was a big contrast to Billy Budd. I was playing in the Met Orchestra when you sang the title role. That must have been a high-pressure premiere. (1978)

RS: For sure. [Laughs] A few years before, in 1971, near the beginning of my career, I’d actually made my debut at Hamburg Opera with this role, replacing another singer who had canceled because of a serious illness. I jumped in at the last moment and had a nice success. Back then such operas were done in German. I somehow learned it in 2 weeks, don’t ask how. When you’re young, such feats are possible. It certainly wouldn’t be possible today [Laughs]. That production was directed by John Dexter, who shortly after came to the Met as Production Director. He asked me to do the title role in a similar production. Having done it previously took some pressure off me. The Met’s use of hydraulic lifts to create those wonderful ship decks was new and exciting. Do you remember?

EM: Do I? I’d never seen such a gorgeous production.

RS: Nor have I. We were all on pins and needles, hoping these hydraulics always worked. Fortunately they did. I was in heaven with this cast and ensemble. Of course I got to perform with Sir Peter Pears as Captain Vere, creator of this role, a wonderful colleague. And Jim Morris as evil John Claggart, and the rest of the crew of the Indomitable. Preparing for this role I found a book on stuttering, Billy’s fatal flaw. I was fascinated how debilitating this could be in serious cases. I learned that some would almost experience a seizure trying to get words out, they would be so blocked. I tried to utilize this knowledge when breaking into Billy’s stammering. Raymond Leppard conducted wonderfully, as you no doubt remember.

EM: I do.

RS: I did finally have to learn the role in English, but with great joy. I’d also become a close friend of Theodore Uppman, the original Billy Budd with Benjamin Britten. We had a couple of sessions about the character, what Britten had told him in their work. That connection was wonderful.

EM: You brought something special to the role. You had this angelic aura around you. Such a striking figure. And your portrayal was so poignant. It made the whole opera.

RS: Thank you. I do appreciate that. I was excited to be on that stage. I loved clambering around those decks. I’m a ship aficionado, I always loved old sailing ships, even before Billy Budd, and collected a lot of ship memorabilia.

EM: So you were happy as a clam.

RS: I was, I loved that set.

EM: The year after that, you recorded Pelléas et Mélisande with Karajan. What was it like to work with such a conducting icon? (1979)

RS: That was something else. Pelléas was probably the most important of all my repertoire. My professional career began singing it at City Opera, directed by Frank Corsaro. He’d become an important mentor to me, attending his opera classes in New York, I fondly remember. He taught me so much about performing. After my audition, Julius Rudel asked me if I thought I could sing the role in the upcoming production. I was not at all familiar with the opera. I was taken into a rehearsal room with head coach Thomas Martin and sang through some of the score, and determined within a few minutes that I could sing it. I was hired to cover, with a guarantee of 1 performance that season. As luck would have it, Winthrop Sargeant of The New Yorker and Harold Schonberg of The New York Times were in the audience that night. They both gave me rave reviews. The role is often too high for many baritones and too low for tenors. Fortunately it fit my voice perfectly. Shortly thereafter I sang it in Santa Fe, Chicago, La Fenice, La Scala, Royal Opera, Paris Opera and finally recorded it under von Karajan, with Flicka. She and I were nervous going into these sessions. He sometimes had a reputation as being difficult. But he was a great joy to work with—the softer, gentler Karajan. Pelléas had been on his to-do list for some time. He was in a great mood, and oh my God, the Berlin Philharmonic, so superb. José van Dam as Golaud, had always been one of my vocal heroes. With my dear friend Flicka, that made it that much more special. We all had a grand, exciting time. Definitely one of the highlights of my entire career.

Courtesy of the Artist

EM: Did Karajan choose you?

RS: He did. The strangest audition ever, in Berlin. I’d prepared part of the “Tower” scene, which is the closest thing to an aria in the opera. But he sat down at the piano and said, “I want you to do this.” I thought, “Now what?” [Laughs] From the last meeting between Pelléas and Mélisande, I sang these lines (sings) “Mélisande, est-ce toi, Mélisande?” Apprehensive, mezzo piano. He says, “No, no, no, no, it’s much too loud. Softer.” So I sing, “Mélisande, est-ce toi, Mélisande?” “No, no, still too loud. Softer, softer.” Insisting. So I go (whispers), “Mélisande, est-ce toi, Mélisande?” He said, “Yes! That’s it. When I record my Pelléas, you will be my Pelléas.” EM: Oh my God. RS: And I thought, “What? I’m not holding my breath on this one.” But lo and behold, a year or so later I got the contract. Couldn’t have been nicer.

EM: Sounds like the closest thing to heaven. 

RS: No kidding. I couldn’t believe the way it happened. Everyone loved working with him. The atmosphere was conducive to camaraderie. He was lord and master of the orchestra, of course. If there was any rustle of noise he would lower his head till there was complete silence. Then he would go [Laughs]. I’ll never forget that. He was something else. Pretty amazing.

EM: How have yours and Flicka’s musical lives intersected over the years?

RS: Do you have a couple of hours? You know how special she is. She has been a godsend to my life, for all the operatic community. One of the most talented, giving, warm, loving people on earth. I’m fortunate to be her close friend for over 50 years now. Matthew Epstein managed both of us for much of our careers. From the beginning Pelléas in Santa Fe he saw the remarkable chemistry between us onstage. Whenever possible he would try to cast us together. That led to Così fan tutte as Guglielmo and Dorabella with San Francisco Opera, Monteverdi’s Return of Ulysses at NYCO, Washington D.C. and Glyndebourne. Thomas Pasatieri’s The Seagull, world premiere in Houston, Dominic Argento’s The Aspern Papers world premiere in Dallas. Later again in San Francisco, Così but as Alfonso and Despina. We went full circle. We’ve done recitals and concerts together, I’ve spoken in tribute to her on several occasions, some with the Met Guild, and for 2 of her Farewell Concerts. But wait, there’s more. Serendipitously, Flicka’s daughter Jenny lives with her husband and 2 daughters about 5 minutes from my house in Virginia. It’s just one of those things. So before Covd-19, Flicka would often be in town visiting the family and Kerry and I would meet up with her and her family and we’d talk about the old days. I love being around her granddaughters—one of them got a crush on me, such fun. In our senior years this has been a true blessing, the “icing on the cake” of our relationship. Fantastic.

EM: The way certain people connect in a certain way is just meant to be.

RS: I think so. Certainly the case with Flicka and me.

EM: You’re both such special people and extraordinary artists. 

 [Next, Part 2: In Perilous Times, Music is a savior]


Photo credits: Jack Mitchell, Beth Bergman, Guy Gravett, Heffernan, Courtesy of the Artist
Erica can be reached at: [email protected] 

Thursday, July 23, 2020

iPalpiti Festival 2020 Livestreaming

Trio Zadig play Tchaikovsky and Dvořák from Paris

Tchaikovsky in 1877.
As a title, “The Months” has hardly the turning-of-the-year resonance of “The Seasons,” but it would be a more accurate appellation for the 12 piano pieces commissioned late in 1875 from Tchaikovsky by the St. Petersburg editor Nikolai Bernard. These were for the following year’s editions of his monthly music magazine Nuvellist, and Bernard also chose subjects for each piece—e.g. January “by the fireside,” April the “snowdrop”, June a “barcarolle”, and so on—and all 12 editions (except, according to one source, September) opened with that month’s piece alongside a short poem and graphic illustration, also selected by Bernard. 

Though they share a simple ABA form, there’s plenty of variety in mood, texture, and pace across the dozen months in The Seasons Op. 37a, and so while they make a quite satisfactory whole, totaling 40-45 minutes, they also excerpt well. Trio Zadig, artists-in-residence at the Fondation Singer-Polignac in Paris, opened their contribution to this year’s (inevitably mostly virtual) iPalpiti Festival, with five selections in the arrangement for piano trio by the little-known Russian composer Alexander Goedicke (1877-1957). 

Alexander Goedicke.
Whatever the merits of Goedicke’s own music (n.b. to self: see what’s on YouTube), in these arrangements he seems not to put a foot wrong. Leaving Tchaikovsky’s piano original largely unaltered in those passages where the violin and cello are silent, elsewhere he skillfully allots melodic lines to either or both of the strings, with or without mutes as appropriate, and with much use of pizzicato coloring.

Trio Zadig’s selection cleverly moved through one month per season: the warmly confiding January by its fireside followed by the freshness of April’s snowdrop, in turn succeeded by the memorably wistful barcarole of June—the one indelibly knockout Tchaikovsky tune in the whole set, which has resulted in it being far more frequently performed as a standalone item than any of the others.

So far, so good, with the music spaciously and sensitively characterized in the clear acoustic of the Fondation’s recital room (the screen image of the two strings quite close together, well in front of the piano, emphasized that the latter was rather backwardly balanced), but to have inserted the vigorous and quite brief September “Hunt” between June and the even more soulful “Autumn Song” of October would have broken up 10+ minutes of rather unrelieved Slavic melancholy. No matter, concluding with December’s waltz—just as in the complete work—was exactly right: elegantly and unhurriedly swaying for the most part, with the Trio delivering perfectly Tchaikovsky’s subtle, throwaway end. 

Antonin Dvořák.
Cellist Marc Girard-Garcia took rather more notice of Dvořák’s Lento maestoso marking than the metronome quarter-note = 56 at the head of the first movement of the Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor Op. 90 B. 166 “Dumky”, composed in 1891, and with his forward balance and sweeping phrasing, kicked the work off powerfully indeed, arguably a little too portentously for the high-spirited dance into which the movement devolves.

For me, this pattern of over-emphasizing contrasts of dynamic and pace, loading the slow music with weight it’s not quite up to carrying, and precipitating jolting charges into the fast sections, carried through the whole performance. But then, I am probably in a minority of one in finding the Dumky Trio as a whole a rather odd, unsatisfactory bird in Dvořák’s chamber music. But there’s no denying the sheer panache and professionalism of his piano trio writing per se, and M. Girard-Garcia and his colleagues Boris Borgolotto (violin) and Ian Barber (piano) certainly played throughout with great beauty, commitment, and unanimity.

Let’s hope we have the chance to hear them again live in Southern California when this craziness is finally over. Meanwhile you can enjoy these performances online by clicking either the image above or here


Photos: Tchaikovsky: Tchaikovsky Research; Goedicke: Bach Cantatas website; Dvořák: Wikimedia Commons.

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

Elegiac Masterpieces Livestreamed

Steven Vanhauwaert.


Schumann, Busoni, and Debussy: Steven Vanhauwaert

The reactions of musicians to the global scything of live music with audiences by the Covid-19 pandemic has been hugely varied. Of necessity, large organizations have mostly resorted to streaming performances from past concerts, with very occasionally new performances made in venues empty but for the musicians themselves and recording staff. The inherent flexibility of individuals and chamber groups has, however, enabled more proactive attempts to fill the void.

Here in southern California’s South Bay area, a particularly grievous loss has been the multiplicity of chamber music series, some but not all under the auspices of Classical Crossroads Inc., so it is a particular pleasure to be able to review one recent livestreamed recital that would have graced any of their events, and which (for me) entirely overcame the pitfalls of trivialized or hackneyed repertoire, performance fallibility, and acoustic/recording challenges.

One might also mention awkwardnesses in how to talk to an unseen, remote audience, but the pianist Steven Vanhauwaert’s spoken introductions to the items in his recital streamed-as-live from his home on Sunday, July 12—Brahms’ Schumann Variations, Busoni’s Bach Fantasia, and two from Debussy’s second book of Préludes—avoided any, being models of engaging lucidity. More importantly, these works, mostly tending to the elegiac in mood, were as finely played as they were mutually complementary.

Brahms in 1855.
Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann in F-sharp minor, Op. 9,  composed in May-June 1854, was only his second work in variation form, and it is one of his earliest masterpieces. Brahms takes his theme from the fourth of Schumann’s Bunte Blätter ("Colored Leaves") Op. 99, and carries through its mood of wistful melancholy—the marking is Ziemlich langsam (moderately slow)—seamlessly into the first of his 16 variations.

Thereafter the mood does lighten and the pace pick up; there’s plenty of dynamic and tempo contrast with the fast Variations 5, 6, 9 and 13, but throughout Brahms keeps pulling back to that opening reflectiveness and pathos, and the seal is set when he ends with the very antithesis of the bravura that typically crowns variations-sets. The hushed, spare, somber brevity of the final Adagio Variation 16 clearly expresses his feelings for the Schumanns, with whom Brahms was deeply involved, in the wake of Robert’s failed suicide attempt only a couple of months before Brahms composed his Op. 9.

All this was fully conveyed in Mr. Vanhauwaert’s devoted performance, recorded in clear, faithful sound on his own Steinway, and concluding with a carefully gauged slow fade to black before he returned to sketch in Busoni’s career as a piano virtuoso, as a transcriber, and as a composer in his own right. As Mr. Vanhauwaert noted, the Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach, BV. 253, composed in June 1909, is “a mix of both”, quoting several Bach chorale preludes but clothing and linking them with his own transitions and “rather quirky harmonic language.”

Ferruccio Busoni.
Though falling into several fairly clearly defined sections, Busoni’s Fantasia, like Brahms' Schumann Variations, has overall a somber elegiac quality, right from its arpeggiated Molto tranquillo e gravement opening, full of quiet portent in Mr. Vanhauwaert’s hands. And again like the Brahms, it ends not with a bang but with a rapt withdrawal, tranquillissimo, reflecting the dedication at the work’s head to the memory of Busoni’s father, who had died that May.

Suitably atmospheric accounts of Brouillards ("Mist") and Bruyères ("Heather"), the first and fifth of Debussy’s Préludes, Book Two, L. 123, concluded a recital that could only have been improved upon if it had taken place in the usual location and before the normal enthusiastic, capacity audience for Rolling Hills United Methodist Church’s “Second Sundays at Two” series. Let’s hope that the coming year sees all of us, and especially Mr. Vanhauwaert, back there. Meanwhile, and most fortunately, you can enjoy this recital online by clicking here or on the image at the top.


 Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee

Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Shelly Traverse Wraps Seattle Opera “Songs of Summer”

Sunny Martini

REVIEW: Shelly Traverse 

McCaw Hall, Seattle 

Seattle Opera’s innovative "Songs of Summer" recital series has been bringing some of the company’s most valued singers to an electronic stage via opera lovers’ cell phones, tablets, and computer screens. The series, which premiered in June with the illustrious Jamie Barton, will continue through July 13 with recitals available to stream on Seattle Opera’s website, as well as Facebook and YouTube, for two weeks from the premiere date.

As the company believes that the fight for racial justice touches all areas of society, the arts included, they are showing their commitment to this struggle by highlighting partner organizations that have been making an impact in Seattle communities.

On July 14, the company presented a recital featuring Shelly Traverse, soprano, accompanied by Beth Tankersley, piano. The partner organization for this program was Spectrum Dance Theater.

Traverse made a spectacular impression with her last-minute Seattle Opera mainstage debut as Hero in 2018’s Beatrice & Benedict. Attracting great acclaim in the media for her performance, Traverse literally stole the show vocally and dramatically.

She then charmed McCaw Hall audiences earlier this year as the music-loving Chan Parker in the much-praised Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. Traverse often performs as part of the company’s Programs & Partnerships initiatives, touring Washington state in a variety of family-friendly operatic productions.

Wendy Waltz
Spectrum Dance Theater, one of the Pacific Northwest's most esteemed dance companies, provides a valuable artistic service to a racially diverse community via performances, outreach, and school. Seattle Opera’s history with the company, and with TONY-nominated and Bessie-Award winning choreographer Donald Byrd, includes productions of Semele, Aida, Julius Caesar and Charlie Parker's Yardbird.

Traverse’s Songs of Summer program displayed her versatility in repertoire, with an array of French and American art songs, beloved opera arias by Mozart and Puccini, and selections by Broadway luminary Stephen Sondheim.

She showed her charming personality and engaging stage presence right from the start with an introductory speech in which she spoke of Seattle Opera’s commitment to the fight for racial justice, mentioning the artistic collaboration with Spectrum Dance Theater and the passion it displayed in the bold and powerful scene that choreographer Donald Byrd created for Charlie Parker's Yardbird. Then she launched into a nicely varied program. After hearing Traverse in a contemporary opera such as Charlie Parker it was lovely to hear her sing selections from the classical repertoire.

The soprano began the program with Despina’s lively aria, In Uomini, In Soldati from Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. Traverse’s voice was well focused, and she showed a keen understanding of the character’s mischievous personality and cheeky humor.

The next selections, two art songs by Reynaldo Hahn, were the highlight of the program. A Chloris is perhaps the most well-known of Hahn’s Belle Époque repertoire for the female voice. Traverse captured the subtle charm of the piece and of the composer’s musical sensibilities, and melded the music beautifully with the text.

Her voice, which served her so well in Berlioz’ Beatrice and Benedict, showed that it was perfectly suited for French inflection in Le Rossignol des lilas as well. In this piece, which demonstrates the influence of Hahn’s teacher Massenet, Traverse’s voice floated in the air Impressionistically, yet with convincing, down-to-earth ardor.

Though Puccini’s O mio babbino caro has been somewhat oversung in recent times, Traverse sings with great sincerity, and her rendition of the perennial favorite had a youthfulness and freshness that was uplifting.

Traverse then stepped into Broadway musical territory with two Stephen Sondheim songs: “I remember” from Evening Primrose (text by Sondheim and James Goldman) and “On the steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods (text by Sondheim and James Lapine).

Musical theatre was the soprano’s first love, and it showed in her lively versions of these appealing works. Her voice is well-matched to this genre, and she showed powerful emotion, both comedic and dramatic, in her interpretations.

Evening Primrose was a made-for-TV musical about people who are not able to leave the place in which they live. Traverse, in a gesture adapted to the current crisis, dedicated “I remember” to those people who are self-sheltering. In “On the Steps of the Palace,” she winningly communicated the comic irony of Cinderella’s somewhat bemused soliloquy.

The program ended exquisitely with “Sure on this Shining Night” from Four Songs, Op. 13 by Samuel Barber (text by James Agee). Traverse sang with well-controlled legato and delicate phrasing. The song’s message also was appropriate for our present-day situation: May kindness watch for you…may all hearts be whole. Traverse’s charm, sincere manner and appealing voice conveyed the meaning to all who were fortunate enough to watch this finale to the Songs of Summer project. Pianist Beth Tankersley was an able accompanist and showed great sensitivity, especially in the Hahn and Barber pieces.

Sunny Martini


Photo credits: Wendy Waltz, Sunny Martini
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, May 27, 2020


John Moore, SO Chorus
(Phillip Newton)

PREVIEW: Seattle Opera


Amid stay-home order, two companies team up to keep opera vibrant in the Pacific Northwest 

Self-sheltering? Missing opera? No problem. Seattle Opera has paired with local classical radio station KING FM 98.1 to bring listeners their Saturday morning opera fix with their Seattle Opera Mornings feature on KING FM

Since Saturday, April 25, opera aficionados have been treating themselves to the finest that the art form has to offer, as SO and KING have brought broadcast recordings of previous Seattle Opera performances to radio and online audiences. These exciting broadcasts will continue to be available on the radio and at https:/// every Saturday morning at 10 a.m. Pacific Time through July 25.

According to General Director Christina Scheppelmann, a special agreement with the singers’ and musicians’ unions—the American Guild of Musical Artists and the Seattle Symphony and Opera Players’ Organization—are making these presentations possible. “Seattle Opera and KING FM are thrilled to be able to bring beautiful music and storytelling to our audiences’ ears,” says Scheppelmann. “Many thanks go to all the artists who make Seattle Opera what it is.”

On Saturday, June 13, the series will feature The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, which had its hugely successful west coast premiere during Seattle Opera’s 2018-2019 season. This phenomenal work, created by composer Mason Bates and librettist Mark Campbell, scrutinizes the life of the iconic tech giant, portraying key episodes in his extraordinarily complex journey. The work combines melodic and traditional music with elements of electronic music and a libretto which, according to the librettist, “places Jobs' life under a microscope without sacrificing the tech giant's deep humanity.” 

John Moore, SO Chorus
(Phillip Newton)
Campbell weighed in on the role of a librettist in the 21st century in a February, 2019, interview.

“The story comes first. Everything really starts with the librettist. We come up with the story, establish the structure.” Campbell arrived at the concept of disrupting the usual narrative creating “more of a circular story, based on the memory of this man rather than strict chronological.”

The librettist did not find the writing itself difficult as compared to portraying a man who was, and still is, iconic: in the limelight and a known quantity by practically everyone. Pushing the envelope of “the Steve Jobs we think we know,” Campbell went about pinpointing the formative events of Jobs’s life and career.

“I had to imagine it almost as fiction,” Campbell says, “To try to shake off everyone else's perceptions and create a sympathetic portrayal.”

John Moore, Emily Fons
(Jacob Lucas)

Mark Campbell
(courtesy of artist)
An integral part of Campbell’s concept consisted in starting his story with Jobs as a young child. “When you have a kid, your job is to identify what is beautiful and possibly brilliant in them, whatever they seem to like, and encourage it as much as possible,” he says. “Who knows if there's another Steve Jobs out there who will change our lives?”

Campbell’s job was, “Not to create the most comprehensive portrait…(but) one that delivers an emotional punch, and also is a damn good entertainment.” The audience will come to know the version of Jobs that he and Bates engendered. “One thing that never grows old is that opera uses a beautiful abstract form to get to the heart of a character and, through that, of the audience. That's something I never want to lose.”

Campbell definitely succeeded. Reactions were overwhelmingly positive, as reviewers and audience alike were impressed with the striking set designs and lighting, innovative music and consistently solid vocal performances, not to mention an overall subject matter and character portrayal that almost anyone over the age of two can relate to. As Bates has said, “Everybody is carrying a little bit of Steve Jobs in their pocket…(but) the real pivot in the piece is toward the human story.”

Garrett Sorenson, John Moore
(Phillip Newton)
Listeners are sure to find all of the above elements and more when they tune in to this groundbreaking performance on June 13.

Remaining performances in the series are as follows, listed with their starring performers:

June 20: Don Giovanni (2014) Lawrence Brownlee
June 27: La traviata (2017) Corinne Winters
July 11: Madama Butterfly (2017) Yasko Sato
July 18: Così fan tutte (2018) Marjukka Tepponen
July 25: Rigoletto (2019) Soraya Mafi

The financial support of listeners helps support Seattle Opera’s “At Home” series as well as sustain the company until enjoy opera as a community will be possible once again. Listeners can support Opera at Home via

“We’ve been thrilled with the listener response to Seattle Opera Mornings on KING FM,” says Scheppelmann. “These broadcasts offer a way for people to relive their favorite performances, or for any music lover to experience a great opera performance. I’m proud to say that we have future collaborations planned with KING FM, as well.”

Further information on Opera Mornings can be found on Seattle Opera’s blog.

Seattle Opera Presents
The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs
(Jacob Lucas)

Photo credits:Phillip Newton, Jacob Lucas
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Livestreaming Newsletter Update September 17, 2020

Protect yourself from infection,
for unaccompanied chorus,
by David Lang (b. 1963).
David J Brown

Live classical music events with audiences have ceased—a situation that looks fair to continue indefinitely—but enterprising organizations and musicians are moving to a format of recitals with no audience present but livestreamed, with recordings subsequently available via YouTube, Facebook, etc.

This Newsletter contains notifications of upcoming recitals to be livestreamed when we know about them, so that you can plan to view/listen as they happen, and lists of past events so that if you couldn't tune in at the time, you can instead access the recordings at your leisure. It is reposted on Facebook when there are updates of future live events.

Classical Crossroads, Inc. and the South Bay Chamber Music Society—our area's two principal chamber music organizations—rely on donations to pay their performers. If you've attended their concerts in the past, and are now looking forward to their 2020-21 seasons livestreamed, please support them! For Classical Crossroads, Inc. go to the “Donate” button here; for the SBCM, you will find a downloadable donation form here.

If you find this Newsletter to be useful, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Upcoming livestreamed recitals and recordings

South Bay Chamber Music Society, Sunday, September 20, 3:00 p.m. PDT.
All concerts in the 2020-21 season from the SBCMS will be videotaped and streamed-as-live at the usual time; the Artistic Director, Robert Thies, introduces the season here. The first concert, by the New Hollywood String Quartet, will comprise Schubert's String Quartet No. 12 in C minor "Quartettsatz" D. 703, Mozart's String Quartet No. 21 in D major K. 575, and Ravel's String Quartet in
F major, M. 35.

First Fridays at First!~fff, Friday, October 2, 12:15 p.m. PDT.
All concerts in the 2020-21 season from Classical Crossroads, Inc., will be videotaped and streamed-as-live at the usual time. The October recital will be by pianist Mi Hyun-Suh, winner of the Peninsula Symphony 2020 Knox Competion. Click here for the September concert, in which Trio Céleste played music by Mendelssohn and Dvořák. 

Second Sundays at Two, Sunday, October 11, 2:00 p.m. PDT.
As with Classical Crossroads' other series (above), all concerts in this 2020-21 season are being videotaped and streamed-as-live at the usual time; the next will be by the LA Chamber Orchestra's Principal Cellist, Andrew Shulman, with the celebrated Italian pianist Fabio Bidini. Click here for the recording of the previous concert, by piano duo Bernadene Blaha and Kevin Fitz-Gerald.

Out of the Silence: A Celebration of Music from Bard College, Saturday, September 19, 2:30 p.m. PDT.
Click here to make a (free) reservation for Program Three in this series of four weekly streamed concerts, including works by Roque Cordero, Samuel Coleridge-Taylor, and Tchaikovsky.

First Congregational Church of Los Angeles, Sunday, September 20, 10:30 a.m. PDT.
Click here for the pre-service livestreamed organ recital by Christoph Bull, including music by Fanny Mendelssohn, Clara Schumann, Guilmant and Vaughan Williams, as well as improvisations.

Beethoven 250: A Serving of Beethoven, Lunchtime Concert, Thursday, September 17, 12:00 p.m. PDT.
Click here for the next recital in this Colburn School series, which now moves on from the string quartets to the violin sonatas, played by Martin Beaver (violin)
and Fabio Bidini (piano)This week it's the Violin Sonata No. 4 in A minor
Op. 23

"Resilience" program #24 by violinist Tim Fain, Saturday, September 19, 12:00 p.m. PDT.
Click here for the 24th in this series, in which Tim Fain will play works by composers we all love, as well as Kevin Puts and himself. Recordings of his previous "Resilience" recitals can also be heard at this same link.

Glendale Noon Concerts, Wednesday September 30, 12:10 p.m. PDT.
Click here for the next in this series of fortnightly recitals. The most recent, a solo viola d'amore recital by Adriano Zoppo, in which she played works by Louis-Toussaint Milandre and Kirsten Fife, can be heard here. The one before, in which violinist Alexander Knecht played works by J. S. Bach and Eugene Ysaÿe, can be heard here.

Ongoing streamings from southern California

Delirium Musicum Chamber Orchestra, Los Angeles.
Click here for links to information and videos.

Los Angeles Master Chorale: two new digital series.
Sundays at Seven and Offstage with the Los Angeles Master Chorale.

The Verdi Chorus of Santa Monica's first online concert
Click here or here to access the 2018 program, "The Force of Destiny."

New Hollywood String Quartet. 2019 Summer of Brahms Weekly Video Concert Series.
Click here for recordings of performances from this festival, added weekly.

Los Angeles Philharmonic: LA Phil at Home. 
Click here to watch videos, podcasts, and interviews, read articles, learn about recordings, and sign up for new notifications. 

The Broad Stage Live at Home.
Click here for livestreamed performances, interviews and archival footage. 

LACMA Sundays Live.
Click here for concerts in this series at St. James-in-the-City Episcopal Church, Los Angeles.

Camerata Pacifica Concerts at Home! 
Weekly live broadcasts, on YouTube Live at 11 a.m. & 6 p.m., and on Facebook Live at 2 p.m.

Ken Aiso (violin/viola), Valeria Morgovskaya (piano): Livestream Home Concert, every day, 8:00-8:15p.m. PDT.
This is only available via Instagram on mobile devices (cellphones, iPad, tablet), NOT on laptops and desktop computers. To access, install Instragram app and then search for kenaiso1.

LA Opera At Home: Living Room Recitals.
Click here for livestream events and recordings.

Previous individual events and events from individuals

I Palpiti Festival 2020: Trio Zingara, Sunday, July 19.
Click here for the first concert this year from I Palpiti, in which Trio Zingara played works by Tchaikovsky and Dvořák.

Virtual AmericaFest, Saturday, July 4.
This year's event included cellist Cécilia Tsan performing solo works by J. S. Bach and Pablo Casals from the dome of the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson. Click here for the performance itself.

Music at Saint Matthews, Friday, June 5.
Click here for pianist Robert Thies performing a program of works by Beethoven, Schumann, Brahms, Rachmaninoff, and Debussy.

Hear Now Music Festival, Los Angeles, 2017.
Click here for cellist Cécilia Tsan playing (and speaking the words) of The Messiah, by LA composer Hugh Levick.

Rolling Hills United Methodist Church "Second Sundays at Two", May 10.
Click here for Einav Yarden's recital on May 10, recorded from Berlin.

Steven Vanhauwaert, Second Sundays at Two, Sunday July 12, 2 p.m. PDT.
Click here for Steven Vanhauwaert's recital, recorded from his home. 

Glendale Noon Concerts.
Click here for Jacqueline Suzuki and Brendan White playing Respighi on July 15.
Click here for Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya playing Schumann and Brahms on May 20.
Click here for Maksim Velichlin's solo cello recital on May 6. 
Click here for Brendan White playing Hindemith's Ludus Tonalis on April 15.
Click here for this recital by Jonah and Robert Sirota on March 12.

A Classical Crossroads streamed-as-live concert.
Click here for the Latsos Piano Duo playing Schubert, Brahms, Mendelssohn, Scriabin, Rachmaninoff, and Joe Giarrusso. 

Dilijan Chamber Music Series: From Our Home to You, April 23.
This home concert by the Pogossian/ Manouelian family, honoring the 105th Anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, can be enjoyed at this YouTube link.

Violinist Jennifer Koh: "Alone Together."
Click here for videos of many short specially commissioned violin pieces.

A Classical Crossroads streamed-as-live concert, Saturday April 18. 
Trio Zagig, recorded at Greystone Mansion, Beverly Hills: Click here for the Vimeo recording.

Tomasz Fechner (guitar): final DMA (Doctor of Musical Arts) recital, April 11.
Click here for the YouTube recital.

Malibu Friends of Music: A Serenade to the Holy Days of Spring, Monday April 13. Click here or here for Facebook recording of this recital.

Cheng2 Duo at home in New York City, March 31.
Click here for Facebook recording of this recital.

Mak Grgić, USC Thornton School of Music Artist Diploma candidate student: all-J. S. Bach guitar arrangements, Saturday, March 28.
Click here for Facebook recording of this recital.

Aaron David Miller (organ): First Church of Christ Scientist, San Marino, Monday, March 16.
Click here for the YouTube recording of this recital.

Svetlana Smolina (piano): “The Interludes,” First Lutheran, Torrance, Saturday, March 14
Click here for the YouTube recording of this recital.

Music livestreaming, recordings, and events from worldwide sources

Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts: Streaming of Music, Dance, Theater, and other performances.
• BEMF at Home: Streamings of recording highlights from past productions by the Boston Early Music Festival.
Live with Carnegie Hall: Livestreamings, recordings, and more. Carnegie Hall is also streaming via
Ariel Avant Robinson Recitals: weekly online chamber concerts.
• American Symphony Orchestra online; a new recording from the ASO archives released each Wednesday.
Bard Music West Shelter in Music Bay Area: links to upcoming livestreamed events.
Philharmonic Society of Orange County list of upcoming livestream events, doubtless containing duplications of other lists.
Bachtrack: Many on-demand streaming services listed here, some of which may be duplicated below.
Music Never Sleeps NYC.
Alex Ross: The Rest is Noise—COVID-19 live streams, a listing. 
Fisher Center at Bard College Upstreaming: Archive of performances and other events.
• Great Performances at the New York Met.