Wednesday, April 28, 2021

South Bay chamber music—A Covid season retrospective 2

Steven Vanhauwaert, Artistic Director for the Second Sundays at Two series.

Classical Crossroads

As with the 2020-21 season of the South Bay Chamber Music Society (see the previous LA Opus post, with links to all seven of the SBCMS's pre-recorded concerts), the South Bay area's other principal purveyor of live chamber music, Classical Crossroads, Inc., also tackled head-on the challenge of maintaining its mission in the face of the constraints imposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Arguably, the task Classical Crossroads faced was even more daunting, with 19 events planned across two series. In fact, the Saturday afternoon "The Interludes" series (frequently reviewed in LA Opus in previous years) was suspended, but for this season, along with First Fridays at First!~fff—recorded at the usual venue of First Lutheran Church and School, Torrance—Classical Crossroads took under its wing the previously separate Second Sundays at Two, performed in Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Fortunately, all the streamed recordings are still available to be enjoyed on YouTube, and the high standards of performance and video and audio presentation achieved by the team of Jim Eninger (publisher of the invaluable Clickable Chamber Music Newsletter) and Karla Devine for "First Fridays at First!~fff" and Artistic Director Steven Vanhauwaert of "Second Sundays at Two" can be appreciated at the links below. 

However, professional concerts free of charge to the audience, whether live or virtual, need sponsorship. If you enjoy any or all of the following, please consider a donation to Classical Crossroads here!

(Kevin Kwan Loucks, piano; Iryna Krechkovsky, violin; Ross Gasworth, cello)
MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49 (mvts 1, II)
DVOŘÁK: Piano Trio No.4 in E Minor, Op. 90, "Dumky" (mvts IV, VI)

(Canadian pianists Bernadene Blaha and Kevin Fitz-Gerald from USC Thornton School Faculty)
BEETHOVEN: Three Marches for Four Hands, Op. 45
DEBUSSY: Petite Suite for four hands, L65
DVOŘÁK: Slavonic Dances Op. 46: Nos. 5, 2, 1
SCHUBERT: Marche Militaire in D Major, D733, Op. 51 No. 1

(Pianist Mi-Hyun Suh was first-place winner of Peninsula Symphony’s 2020 Knox Competition)
LISZT: Piano Sonata in B minor, S.178

(Fabio Bidini, Piano Chair at Colburn Conservatory, and LACO Principal Cellist Andrew Shulman)
BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonata No. 4 in C Major, Op. 102 No. 1
BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonata No. 5 in D Major, Op. 102 No. 2

(Steven Vanhauwaert, piano; Clive Greensmith, cello)
DVOŘÁK: Silent Woods, Op. 68
DEBUSSY: Cello Sonata in D Minor
SCHUMANN: Adagio and Allegro, Op. 70

(Mark Robson, piano)
BEETHOVEN: Piano Sonata No. 23 in F Minor, Op. 57 "Appassionata"
LISZT: Tre sonetti di Petrarca S.158
LISZT: Franz Liszt: Valse oubliée, No. 1 S.215/1

(Sung Chang, piano)
SCHUBERT: Drei Klavierstücke, D946
LISZT: Liebestraum No.3 (Love's Dream), S541
CHOPIN: Scherzo No.3 in C-sharp minor, Op. 39

This recital by organist David York was given in honor and remembrance of the late organist Namhee Han.
J. S. BACH: In dir ist Freude (In Thee Is Gladness) from Orgelbüchlein, BWV615
VIVALDI (arr J. S. BACH): Largo e spiccato from Concerto in D Minor, BWV596
HOWELLS: Psalm Prelude, Set 1, No. 3, Op. 32—Psalm 23
BUXTEHUDE: Chaconne in E minor
BURKHARDT: Andante Tranquillo from The Balboa Park Suite
FRANCK: Pièce Héroïque in B minor FWV37

(Kevin Kwan Loucks, piano; Iryna Krechkovsky, violin; Ross Gasworth, cello)
BEETHOVEN: Piano Trio in B-flat Major, Op. 97 “Archduke”

This recital by the Israeli pianist Einav Yarden was streamed from her home in Berlin.
BEETHOVEN: Eleven Bagatelles, Op. 119
BRAHMS: Fantasies Op. 116, Nos. 1-3
SCHUMANN: Three Fantasiestücke, Op. 111

(Connie Kim-Sheng, piano; Kyle Gilner, violin, Sarah Kim, cello: from USC Thornton School of Music)
HAYDN: Piano Trio No. 43 in C Major, Hob.XV:27
MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio No.1 in D Minor, Op.49

(Eric Byers, cello; Lucia Micarelli, violin; Fabio Bidini, piano)
BRAHMS: Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major, Op. 87
RAVEL: Sonata in A minor for violin and cello M73

(Violinist Elizabeth Hedman and pianist Robert Thies)
BEETHOVEN: Violin Sonata No.9 in A major, Op. 47, “Kreutzer”
PÄRT: Spiegel im Spiegel (Mirror in Mirror)

Cellists Emilio and Cara Elise Colón joined pianist Steven Vanhauwaert in a two-part streamed recital. See Part II at [email protected]: April 11 below.
HANDEL: Trio Sonata, Op. 2 No. 8, HWV393
SCHUMANN: Fantasiestücke for Cello and Piano, Op. 73
CASSADO: Toccata, “After Frescobaldi,” 1925
CASSADO: Requiebros, 1934

BARRIÈRE: Sonata No. 10 in G Major for two cellos
BEETHOVEN: Cello Sonata No. 1 in F major, Op. 5, No. 1

Still to come in Classical Crossroads' 2020-2021 season are, firstly, another two-part recital, this time by the Portugal-based DSCH—Shostakovich Ensemble, who will play Schubert's Piano Trio No. 1 in B-flat major D898 in the First Friday at First!~fff slot on May 7 at 12:15 p.m., and then Schubert's Piano Trio No. 2 in E-flat major D929 in Second Sunday at Two on May 9, 2021 at 2:00 p.m.

And then both seasons end with a solo piano recital. On Friday, June 4, 2021 at 12:15 p.m. the performance by Korean-born Jeeyoon Kim centers on a set of Brahms Variations accompanied by original illustrations from the artist Moonsub Shin, while Sunday, June 13, 2021 at 2:00 p.m. will see the very familiar figure of Steven Vanhauwaert once more at the keyboard of RHUMC's Steinway.

South Bay chamber music—A Covid season retrospective 1

Robert Thies, Artistic Director of the South Bay Chamber Music Society.

The South Bay Chamber Music Society

The final concert of the South Bay Chamber Music Society's 2020-2021 season—under the Artistic Directorship of Robert Thies and pre-recorded and livestreamed at the usual 3:00 p.m. start time on mid-month Sunday afternoons—marks a useful point at which to take a look back at how our local chamber music organizations in LA's South Bay area have handled their live audience-less seasons—and in the context of the various approaches of a wider spectrum of concert-giving bodies to the challenges of maintaining a presence during the long Covid-19 cultural drought.

The range of streamed content, usually via YouTube or Facebook, has generally fallen into three categories— video recordings from archives, truly live performances, and newly recorded material. Coping with Covid has perhaps been most difficult for bodies whose MO involves large performing forces—pre-eminently opera companies and full-size symphony orchestras—and many perforce have fallen back entirely upon their recorded legacy of past achievement.

Others, however, have managed to produce new recorded content, as in the case of the Pacific Symphony, whose spacious platform in the Segerstrom Hall has enabled performances of works that require less than the orchestra's full complement played by members comfortably socially distanced. While these short concerts have free viewer access on YouTube, the PSO in common with some other companies is also experimenting with more ambitious productions "reimagined for the virtual space" with purchased ticket access.

The Long Beach Symphony, by contrast, has kept its flag flying with "Musically Speaking", an innovative series of online conversations between LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu and a wide range of guest interviewees, ranging from instrumental soloists and singers to conductors, arrangers, and entrepreneurs. 

Due to the perils of technical mishap during transmission, performances streamed live as they are being given are pretty infrequent, and where they do exist they're usually by single instrumentalists in special circumstances, as with organist Christoph Bull's short recitals preceding Sunday services at the First Congregational Church of Los Angeles.

Coming at length to the streaming of pre-recorded material by smaller organizations like the SBCMS and Classical Crossroads Inc., while some others have opted for lightweight programs of popular extracts—perhaps with the notion that loss of freedom of movement also impacts audience powers of concentration—this emphatically has not been the case with the South Bay's enterprising promoters of high-quality chamber music recitals. Both bodies fielded 2020-2021 programs that displayed no artistic compromise compared to their previous seasons before live audiences, except perhaps in that the South Bay Chamber Music Society went for overall playing times of around the one-hour mark, as opposed to the previous full-length duration of 90 minutes or so, plus interval.

The uncompromising seriousness of repertoire and the high performance standards familiar from the past, with the provision maintained of authoritative downloadable program notes, can be seen and heard at the following links, with fully professional, multi-camera, video presentation and high audio quality captured at Pacific Unitarian Universalist Church, Rancho Palos Verdes, the SBCMS's usual venue for its Sunday concerts:

(Tereza Stanislav, violin; Rafael Rishik, violin; Robert Brophy, viola; Andrew Shulman, cello)
SCHUBERT; Quartettsatz D. 703
MOZART; String Quartet in D Major, K. 575
RAVEL: String Quartet in F Major.

(Robert Thies, piano; Lucia Micarelli, violin; Eric Byers, cello)
The Schumann-Mendelssohn Connection
SCHUMANN: Piano Trio in D Minor, Op. 63
MENDELSSOHN: Piano Trio No. 2 in C Minor, Op. 66

(Edith Orloff, piano; Roger Wilkie, violin; John Walz cello) 
MARTINU: Bergerettes
BRAHMS: Piano Trio No. 1 in B Major, Op. 8

(Sergio Coelho, clarinet; Max Opferkuch, clarinet; Amy Jo Rhine, horn; Gregory Roosa, horn; Judith Farmer, bassoon; Elliott Moreau, bassoon)
MOZART: Serenade in E Flat, K. 375
GERNOT WOLFGANG: Three Short Stories for clarinet and & bassoon
BEETHOVEN: Sextet in E Flat, Op. 71

(Steven Vanhauwaert, piano; Movses Pogossian, violin; Brian (Che-Yen) Chen, viola; Clive Greensmith, cello)
MOZART: Piano Quartet No. 1 in G Minor, K. 478
DVOŘÁK: Piano Quartet No. 2 in E-flat Major, Op. 87

(Alyssa Park, violin; Shalini Vijayan, violin; Luke Maurer, viola; Timothy Loo, cello)
BRITTEN: String Quartet No. 2 in C Major, Op. 36
MORRICONE: Ricordare (from Pure Formality, arr Maurer)
SHOSTAKOVICH: String Quartet No. 8 in C Minor, Op. 110

(Robert Thies, piano; Phillip Levy, violin)
BEETHOVEN Violin Sonata No. 7 in C minor, Op. 30 No. 2
BRAHMS: Violin Sonata No. 1 in G major, Op. 78.

Like all other performing organizations, the SBCMS will be looking forward—with both hope and anxiety—to the resumption of live concerts with audience present. Whether or not this will be possible by the 2021-2022 season opening in the fall, only time will tell. 

But either way, live or streamed, the Society's decades-long record of professional chamber concerts free to the public still requires generous sponsorship in order to continue. If you have enjoyed any or all of the streamed recitals listed above, or indeed have attended the SBCMS's previous seasons, please consider making a donation here!

Monday, March 15, 2021

Vanessa Goikoetxea Travels the Opera World of Today


Courtesy of the Artists

INTERVIEW: Vanessa Goikoetxea 



Her Mozart is lyrical, lush, secure and dynamic, with a forceful top range and fluid technique that makes her vocality perfect for a role such as Donna Anna, which has challenged sopranos over the past two centuries. Yet soprano Vanessa Goikoetxea showed her versatility when she won immense kudos for her 2019 Seattle Opera debut in a much gentler role, that of Micaëla in Bizet’s Carmen. 

A native of West Palm Beach, Florida, Spanish-American Goikoetxea’s international cultural background serves her well in her chosen field. Among her awards are both the Deborah Voigt Foundation Prize and the Marcello Giordani competition. She is equally at home on the concert stage. This month, Goikoetxea takes on the role of Donna Anna in Seattle Opera’s Don Giovanni.

Erica Miner: Congratulations on being such an integral part of Seattle Opera’s production of Don Giovanni, Vanessa! First of all, could you please tell us how to pronounce your last name?

Vanessa Goikoetxea: Thank you very much!! It is always a pleasure to be part of this beautiful opera house as Seattle Opera is, which has an exceptional administrative and technical team. I have been twice in Seattle performing Micaëla and Donna Anna and from the first day they made me feel like I was at home…My surname, good question!!! Love when people ask me how to pronounce it because I recognize that it looks a little complicated but once you hear it, it’s much easier! Goikoe is the simple part and TXEA sounds a little bit as “chair” You just have to get rid of the final R!!

EM: Okay, I’ll work on it! SO lists your hometown as Durango (Bizkaia), Spain, but other biographies say you were born in West Palm Beach, Florida. Could you please enlighten us?

VG: I was indeed born in the USA, at that sunny and dreamful state as Florida is! My father was a professional athlete and played Jai alai for many years between Florida and State of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations and that’s the reason of my American citizenship! I really do remember those years of my childhood in a very special and happy way.

EM: What was your journey to the opera stage?

Ken Christensen
VG: It is a path that has been given to me as if it was giving me a gift every day. However, this is not to say that I didn't have to stop fighting every day. Being an artist (generally speaking) requires sacrifice, tenacity, hope, inner tranquility and ambition. Since I was little, I have loved music, I have always been “in tune” with it. And opera for me is the discipline that combines music with text in a perfect way by adding theater with an imposing orchestra. I discovered my classical voice and was encouraged to pursue that musical avenue. I attended Escuela Superior de Canto in Madrid I graduated with a Bachelor of Music in Vocal Performance and then earned my Master of Music-Opera Degree in distinction from Hochschule für Musik und Theater in München. And as I have talked about gifts before, while in Munich I received an email from the Semperoper Dresden to audition for them. Could you imagine my face at that moment?? I answered to that email and it was the key of my journey to the opera stage. From then I didn’t stop singing, meeting so talented colleagues, conductors, directors… and the most important for me being happy on stage every single time. Despite the uncertainty that art carries intrinsically I have never had the feeling of emptiness nor desolation.

EM: Being an opera singer these days must be more of a challenge than ever. Despite the difficult circumstances filming Don Giovanni—even getting to Seattle was challenging from what I’ve read—SO chorusmaster John Keene declared, “Your personal fortitude is inspiring!” How would you describe your experience filming the opera, with Covid protocols et al?

VG: Being an opera singer is challenging by itself, but nowadays more than ever. I must admit that I love flying abroad but in this pandemic situation we need to extreme our precautions because it is mandatory to present negative PCRs and even rapid antigen tests before flying. If you test positive there is no way for flying! The hardest and most painful aspect this time is that I had to travel without my family. I always travel with my husband Aitor and son Mark to all parts of the world. But we decided that they would stay in Spain because of the Covid virus, and we made the best decision since I had to be quarantined for 3 weeks for different reasons. The feeling of being locked in when you are far away from your family was the biggest challenge though.

EM: I can only imagine. You have performed a number of Mozart heroines: Fiordiligi, Vitellia, Donna Anna. But you’ve also sung Woglinde in Wagner’s Ring, as well as Verdi roles. Do you feel a particular affinity for certain composers and roles?

VG: And one more Mozartian role is joining the roster…Donna Elvira. I will make my debut next year! But I have to confess that Vitellia has stolen my heart, I think that La Clemenza di Tito comes out a bit from the typical Mozart style where his music goes further. Being one of Mozart's final compositions makes a difference.

EM: Yes, having played Clemenza at the Met, I totally agree.

VG: I think that we all have particular affinity for certain composers and music styles. Personally, I love verismo, and Germanic romanticism along with Czech romanticism. These last two styles are perhaps the ones that touch deeply my soul. Composers like Verdi, Strauss, Mahler, Dvorak, Janacek…Operas as: Rusalka, Jenufa, Rosenkavalier, Capriccio, Trovatore, Norma, Der Freischütz, Pagliacci… I love them and vocally they are also the ones that best suit my type of voice making me sing freely and fully. It is simply wonderful to be carried away by the magic of their music.

EM: You also sang the role of Jenny in Weill’s Mahagonny. Do you enjoy taking on some of the more contemporary repertoire?

VG: And what an incredible experience it was! I made my debut in Korea National Opera as Jenny Hill. Mahagonny was elaborated as a full-length opera, composed between 1927 and 1929: “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny”. It is universally considered one of Weill's masterpiece, and his music showed a skillful synthesis of American popular music, from opera to cabaret incorporating elements of jazz, with which I can say that although being Kurt Weill cataloged as contemporary, I had no problem internalizing his music at any time. I enjoyed this music from the first bar to the last! It is a masterpiece!

EM: Again, I wholeheartedly agree. What is coming up for you next?

VG: I’m singing the Seven early Songs by Alban Berg and Mozart’s Requiem in March under the baton of Maestro Gianluca Guerrero. I’ll make my debut as Benamor, in the Zarzuela Benamor at Teatro de la Zarzuela in Madrid. After this I’ll be traveling to London and I’ll make my debut at the Royal Opera House as Donna Anna. One of my favorite roles is coming true, I’ll sing Nedda in Spain and I’ll make my debut in France also this year. Challenging and beautiful projects!

EM: Indeed they are. And a wonderful opportunity for great variety in your operatic experiences. Thank you so much, Vanessa, for your insights!

VG: Thank you for this interview! 


Photo credit: Ken Christensen
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Beth Morrison “Doesn’t Take No for an Answer”


Michal Fattal

INTERVIEW: Beth Morrison



“Failure is not an option” 

One of the world’s foremost, most adventurous female producers of contemporary opera, and a tireless champion of diverse voices, opera-theatre producer Beth Morrison unequivocally embraces her seemingly limitless drive. As President and Creative Producer of Beth Morrison Projects, initiated in 2006, Morrison recently was named one of Musical America's four Artists of the Year/Agents of Change. Through her pioneering annual winter PROTOTYPE Festival, in collaboration with the HERE Arts Center, she has worked with prominent contemporary opera composers and other forward-looking operatic creators to conceive and produce multiple Pulitzer Prize-winning operas.

Having just completed its 9th run last month, the Festival was re-envisioned in response to COVID as a series of multi-disciplinary, cross-platform events, which included an innovative self-guided digital exploration of identity, fear and isolation by 13 composers, a multi-screen film and music installation in SoHo. The sonic experience brings to life Times Square, with three U.S. digital premieres of evening-length operatic works from Indonesia, Iceland, and Australia. Thus, the Festival remains both contemporary and adventurous. Morrison is a founding co-director along with Kristin Marting and co-director Jecca Barry.

Morrison’s original concept and mission began with the idea of being an “industry disruptor”.

“‘Industry disruptor’ wasn’t a term back then, but it’s in vogue now,” Morrison says. “I wanted to shake up the opera industry, to create a new type of opera product that spoke to a younger generation. Something more relevant to a contemporary audience that utilized all kinds of media to tell 21st century stories—stories of our time. It’s all about new music, with mostly younger, still living, composers.”

Seeking out and finding artists who worked at the cutting edge of each art form was Morrison’s operative mode. “It was about giving space for them to experiment, to create their work without worry over boundaries or failures,” explains Morrison. “So, they could have the opportunity to use their most creative selves, giving them the period of time necessary to create their best work.”

Composers under BMP’s aegis include emerging composers like Emma O’Halloran, as well as successful mid-career artists. “I have worked with Sarah Kirkland Snyder, Paola Prestini and Missy Mazzoli from when they were emerging, and produced their first operas.” Morrison adds, “Paola and I have produced many of her works together. She also runs National Sawdust.” Others nurtured by BMP include Pulitzer winners Du Yun and Ellen Reid, as well as Met Opera commissioned composers Nico Muhly. Morrison also works with veterans like Ricky Ian Gordon, David Lang, and Michael Gordon.

“Ricky is a different kind of composer. Not one of the younger ones, but at the height of his career and at the pinnacle of his field,” says Morrison. “He came to me with his project Ellen West. He wanted the freedom to create the work in the way he wanted to. I loved his work.”

With poetry by Frank Bidart and music directed by increasingly prominent conductor Lidiya Yankovskaya, Ellen West is described as an “operatic poem” that delves into the psychological and physical struggles of a fictitious woman being treated by Swiss psychiatrist Ludwig Binswanger, who was a pioneer in the field of existential psychology.

“This was a beautiful piece, one to be proud of,” Morrison says of the work, which was commissioned and co-produced by BMP and Opera Saratoga, with a rolling premiere there and at the Prototype Festival in 2020.

Her collaboration with HERE is of utmost importance to Morrison, who always makes sure to emphasize and acknowledge that HERE co-founded PROTOTYPE with BMP and has an equal voice in the overall creative vision. The relationship between the two companies amounts to a super-close partnership, though they are two entirely separate entities.

“The two companies work completely together, co-produce the festival in every way. We work to fundraise, staff, and curate together. It’s a 50-50 share,” Morrison states. “PROTOTYPE is a presenting vehicle to showcase work, which is commissioned, produced and developed through BMP or HERE. We make the investment in the early careers of the emerging artists we work with, both short and long term,” she states. “We nurture the younger generation of composers through their first operas, hands on, show them what it is to collaborate with a creative team in a large theatrical form, take them through the steps of the creative process, helping them to understand it. We want them to know what the art form of opera is, in a deep way. So, we nurture them first, then turn them out into the field, when they’re scooped up by larger companies like Opera Philadelphia, or even the Met.”

The concept seems similar to those behind the American Opera Project or the Adler Fellows at San Francisco Opera, but with major differences.

“They’ve already gotten to a high level in their craft. We don’t work with them on the writing,” Morrison says. “We emphasize the actual production process, in part by holding multiple workshops to refine the writing.”

Morrison adds that PROTOTYPE has its challenges, not having its own board of directors or fiduciary structure. But both BMP and HERE complement each other in their individual and mutual strengths.

As to the festival itself, one would be hard pressed to find a similar initiative that features the multiple components that push the operatic envelope to such an adventurous degree.

Falling between the categories of “Contemporary Classical” and “Experimental”, created by a long list of “new generation” composers, the digital world premiere presentation MODULATION explores sub-topics of Isolation, Fear, and Identity, united by the theme of Breath. Morrison categorizes these as themes artists have been wrestling with during the course of the current pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement. (Tickets are still available by visiting

TIMES3 (TIMES X TIMES X TIMES), a “World Premiere Sonic Experience”, is a sonic journey that can be experienced either in Times Square or digitally at home. Conceived by composer Pamela Z and theatre artist Geoff Sobelle, it is “a soundscape created…to experience the city”. It is still available to download on the website through the end of February, according to Morrison.

OCEAN BODY, composed and performed by Helga Davis & Shara Nova, directed and filmed by Mark DeChiazza, is filmed in and around Florida, with original footage of the Gulf Coast. The work shows the friendship between a black and a white woman and merges song, conversations, and new vocal compositions in a multi-sensory experience.

THE MURDER OF HALIT YOZGAT, composed by Ben Frost and Petter Ekmann, with libretto by Daniela Danza, is a film commissioned by Staatsoper Hannover in cooperation with Holland Festival. Produced by Frost and Trevor Tweeten, it is based on the true story of an immigrant assassinated in an internet café in Germany. The work sets to music themes of racism in the country’s immigrant communities.

Other presentations included THE PLANET—A LAMENT, an expression of grief for the earth in the seemingly unsurmountable grip of climate change, composed and performed by Septina Rosalina Layan and directed by Garin Nugroho.

Morrison describes WIDE SLUMBER FOR LEPIDOPTERISTS as “a strange meditation of the life of a butterfly, the human sleep cycle and insomnia…the two things come together in a gorgeous visual world. Minimalist meets Indie rock with projection imagery and a sonic score.”

As with most performing arts endeavors in these uniquely challenging times, this year’s PROTOTYPE Festival was different from its usual format. “It’s usually all over Manhattan and Brooklyn,” Morrison says. “This year it was digital because of Covid. But we’re proud of what we were able to do. We employed 150 artists, including commissions for16 composers, 14 of whom are BIPOC.”

And, because of the pandemic, it certainly was not easy to retool what they had started with. “We had to scrap the original and start over in July. We formed teams. Every ‘pod’ was different from the others. The festival directors helped them think through the logistics. And there were heavy, heavy protocols for Covid.”

Morrison is not alone in her desire for BMP and PROTOTYPE to once again produce as they did before the virus turned everyone’s lives upside down.

“I can’t wait till it’s over,” she says. 


Photo credit: Michal Fattal
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Saturday, January 2, 2021

Beth Levin’s Hammerklavier CD Celebrates Musical Giants


Tess Steinkolk

CD REVIEW: Hammerklavier Live

Aldilà Records, Alan Wonneberger, Recording Engineer


Beth Levin has become a household name among the most sophisticated aficionados as a dauntless performer of the most demanding piano repertoire, be it Romantic or contemporary. The Philadelphia native expresses her passion for chamber music as well as for solo piano works and is known for taking on challenges that push the envelope of her musical world. 

Levin’s latest CD, Hammerklavier Live, released in November 2020, was recorded at Festival Baltimore in Linehan Concert Hall in 2019. In this unique recording, Levin includes works of two of the greatest German masters, Beethoven and Händel, as well as contemporary Swedish composer Anders Eliasson. 

Erica Miner: Congratulations, Beth, on this huge achievement, the release of your CD, Hammerklavier Live, in Beethoven’s 250th Year. 

Beth Levin: Thank you so much, Erica!

EM: How significant is it for you to share a birthday with the composer’s baptismal day, December 17? 

BL: Mostly it takes me back to lessons with my first teacher, Marian Filar, whose birthday also fell on December 17th. When I walked into the room to audition, clutching my music, we chatted briefly and realized our common birth date and that of Beethoven's baptism. It certainly broke the ice. I was accepted as his student and in the lessons that followed, he introduced me to my first Beethoven sonatas and sets of Variations. I studied the Beethoven third concerto with Filar and went on to perform it with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

EM: Sounds like your history with Beethoven started at an early age! Tell us about your Hammerklavier CD being part of a best-of-the-year playlist, BEETHOVEN ESSENZIELL, in Vienna.

BL: I knew that the radio host in Vienna, Peter Kislinger, was a fan of the CD and loved the music of Anders Eliasson. Still, I was very surprised, not to mention honored and grateful, to be part of the special end-of-year playlist. It aired today and will be online for seven days.

EM: How has your background of having studied with iconic piano luminaries such as Rudolf Serkin prepared you for this recording?

BL: Rudolf Serkin and Leonard Shure were titans of the keyboard but more importantly great musicians who had Beethoven running through their veins. I think that I drank that in and was drawn to their sense of phrasing, long lines, structure and dynamics to name a few aspects of a performance. I was also affected by their sense of courage when making music and a searching quality that led them to unexpected places. The Hammerklavier requires a sense of adventure, an exploratory outlook rather than anything preconceived. Having had those powerful mentors was the right soil for me to grow as a musician and attempt something like the Hammerklavier sonata. Looking back, I'd say I was blessed with great teachers.  

Maximilian Schachtner, Malin Schoenberg, Raphael Wicki

EM: Describe the ways in which Handel relates to Beethoven, vis-à-vis your pairing the “Halle master’s” Suite No. 3 in d minor with the other works on this CD.

BL: Handel was Beethoven's role model. Beethoven had copied out Handel's Messiah the same way that a painter might copy an old master. I saw right away that the Suite in d minor was no polite form with a few dances. Handel was a virtuoso harpsichordist and had traveled widely. The Suite in his hands became very worldly and eventually grew to become Sonata form that propelled Beethoven to fame as a composer of piano music. The work is long, very bold with an improvised Fantasia-like quality. Generally speaking, it felt like a good opening because of its energy and panache.

EM: Indeed, the D minor suite sounds incredibly advanced and, with your adventurous and expansive approach and subtle rubati, very Beethovenian. Yet the precision of your trills sounds markedly Baroque. Aside from Beethoven and Händel, do you feel a special affinity for the “great German tradition” in your overall choice of repertoire?

BL: At the core I do but I'm also very happy when I receive a new work in the mail written yesterday. I think there is a link between playing and acting. We should be ready for any genre—Impressionism, Baroque, Classical—ready for any part to play. Often, we are portraying music—I'd say, expressing it to the audience—which requires a certain projection. Even when something is in the score, we need to express it so that it is alive. I really enjoy mixing the old and the new on programs, most recently Yehudi Wyner and Frank Brickle on a virtual recital with Beethoven and Chopin. The composer Andrew Rudin often jokes with me: “thanks for pairing me with the Schumann Symphonic Etudes!” But I think in the end a performance is by its nature “new” and the Hammerklavier is no exception.

EM: What for you are the special challenges of Beethoven’s Hammerklavier?

BL: Its length for one thing. At times I found myself talking to myself in a performance as in: “You're coming around the bend, don't give up now!” The fugue is a huge challenge because when Beethoven is so radical and bold in his vision, the pianist also has to let go of convention and forget about safety. I hate to think that things are technically difficult, but I had to at least admit to myself that a few spots were on the edge of stability. Also, it's the kind of work that haunts you when you are away from the piano and consumes your life. I remember turning down projects pleading “I can't right now, I'm learning the Hammerklavier sonata.” The scope of the piece is huge, and I think holding a movement together convincingly is difficult, not to mention the entire work. As with any project you should come to it with a sense of sacrifice and love. But in this case doubly so!

EM: How does contemporary Swedish composer Anders Eliasson’s final piano piece, his 2005 Carosello (Disegno per pianoforte No. 3), fit in with the Beethoven and Handel works you’ve chosen for this recording?

BL: I feel that the Handel and the Eliasson pave the way for the Hammerklavier on the program. The Eliasson is in 5/4 and has a feeling of floating and never being quite grounded.

EM: Yes, for me it brings to mind some of Scriabin’s more “otherworldly” works. You definitely mined that airy, ethereal quality in your interpretation.

BL: We also experience a timeless quality in Hammerklavier. Eliasson's sound world is utterly unique and "Carosello" exhibits in a compressed form some of the same qualities of Hammerklavier—building to a climax and then returning to start again. His music feels organic and natural to me, and Hammerklavier is a complete force of nature. On the one hand the Eliasson works as a contrast to the Beethoven, but in originality, harmonic color and emotion they match.

EM: What would you most like to convey to your listeners and fans with this particular recording project?  

Maximilian Schachtner, Malin Schoenberg, Raphael Wicki

BL: The Handel Suite introduces the CD warmly and with such vigor and sense of dance. Eliasson starts to move away from a tonal center and prepares us a bit for the unknown. A friend told me that he listened to the Hammerklavier while on a long car journey. That struck me as the perfect way to experience Op. 106.

EM: The Hammerklavier was undoubtedly the highlight of the CD. I especially admired, as I have in your previous recordings, the discreet contrasts between the more noble aspects of Beethoven’s writing (as in the initial fanfare of the first movement Allegro) and the arrestingly chromatic progressions that follow. 

BL: As a player I felt Beethoven was taking my hand and asking me to follow him not knowing exactly where we'd end up. I hope that listeners will experience the power of Op.106 but also the extreme tenderness and intimacy. I avoided the opening chords for a long time jumping straight to the singing line that follows the fanfare. I took a bit of a slower tempo in the first movement exactly because there is so much lyricism that I didn't want to gloss over in speed. A little less hammer and more klavier might have been my goal.

EM: And you achieved that goal throughout the rest of the piece. The lightness of the Scherzo; the profundity of the Adagio sostenuto, reminiscent of the composer’s late string quartet slow movements; and the unbridled passion of the final Largo – Allegro risoluto. It’s all there.

BL: I hope that my audience enjoys every minute!

EM: I have no doubt they will. I certainly did!

Hammerklavier Live can be purchased at: 

Recorded at Festival Baltimore, Linehan Concert Hall, University of Maryland, 29 June 2019 
Recording Engineer: Alan Wonneberger 
Recording Producer: Peter Karl 
Executive Producer: Christoph Schlüren 
 Design: Daily Dialogue (Maximilian Schachtner, Malin Schoenberg, Raphael Wicki) 
Aldilà Records ©2020 Aldilà Records (Gramola CD 98011) LC 28016 

Photo Credits: Maximilian Schachtner, Malin Schoenberg, Raphael Wicki
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, November 13, 2020

Tenors Brownlee and Spyres are “Friends” Forever

CD REVIEW: Lawrence Brownlee & Michael Spyres

Erato Label, New York


Celebrating Rossini is always a good idea. In their brand-new Erato CD, Amici e Rivali (“Friends and Rivals”), two of today’s shining stars in the tenor firmament, Michael Spyres and Lawrence Brownlee, exult in the bel canto master’s works. From the familiar comedy Il Barbiere di Siviglia to more serious offerings from the lesser known Otello, Armida, La donna del Lago, Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra, Le Siège de Corinthe, and the rarely performed Ricciardo e Zoraide, the two tenors take on the roles of sparring tenors who clearly get along musically and, by all accounts, personally as well.

In the recording, produced at Teatro Ristori in Verona, Brownlee and Spyres obtain assistance from two outstanding young singers, Irish mezzo-soprano Tara Erraught and Spanish tenor Xabier Anduaga. Corrado Rovaris, Principal Conductor of I Virtuosi Italiani and a veteran of the Rossini Opera Festival in the composer’s birthplace of Pesaro, conducts the works on the program with great sensitivity, each one of which originated at the San Carlo opera house in Naples. The sequence of numbers on the program was created to suggest a sequential evolution depicting Rossini’s musical development.

Despite the contentious aspect of the CD’s title, the two artists have great admiration for each other’s abilities. They decided to collaborate after their first such effort at the Concertgebouw in 2018, to call attention to “this special time in the history of opera when two tenors would duel on stage for the hearts of the music-goers,” according to Spyres.

“Our voices complement each other because they have similar qualities to the voices that Rossini wrote for,” says Brownlee. Adds Spyres, “The duets that Rossini wrote for very different tenors precisely highlight our vocal strengths.”

That each of these singers motivates the other to aspire to the greatest possible vocal heights is evident in every one of the challenging excerpts, starting with the duet “All’ idea di quel metallo” from Act I of Barbiere. Within the first few measures, one hears a lushness of voice and tasteful, well-integrated ornamentation that would have brought smiles of approval from the composer. The baritenore aspect of Figaro’s share of the piece fits perfectly in Spyres’s full, supple voice (he actually started out as a baritone), and Brownlee’s leggiero tenor, a seamless combination of lyricism and brightness, is ideal for Almaviva’s part. His voice has not a speck of anything but perfection in its tone production and virtuosity. 

In the first number from Ricciardo e Zoraide, “S’ Ella mi è ognor fedele”, Brownlee displays his legendary legato from the very beginning; always a pleasure to listen to. A seemingly effortless High “C” anticipates the spectacular melismas in the cabaletta, creating an altogether satisfying experience. Everyone loves a Spanish tenor, and Anduaga shows that he can produce impressively in sound and technique, holding his own in the punishing but impressive “Qual sara mai la gioia”, while Spyres and Brownlee meld their sounds and techniques handsomely in “Donala a questo core” and anticipate the excitement of the much later William Tell in the heroic “Teco or Sara.”

Erraught’s splendid voice joins those of both tenors for “Nume! Se a’mei sospiri” and “Qual pena in me già” from La donna del lago. Their voices all are well suited to each other’s and blend consistently and equally. In this number the “Rivali” competitiveness between the two tenors—in full display, one high note after another—takes the breath away.

The melodious Elisabetta, Regina d’Inghilterra, perhaps the most Mozartean of the operas represented here, merits more frequent listening, and not only for the lively “Deh! Scusa i trasporti”. This duet, an equal opportunity piece for both tenors, shows that two voices singing in thirds can sound as one, in the best sense of the phrase.

The same holds true for “Non m'inganno: al mio rivale… Ah! vieni” from Otello. Here, Spyres and Anduaga conspire vengeance with rapid-fire coloratura and bravura and a furor that is positively Verdian, ending on an earth-shattering unison. “Che fiero punto è questo” again adds Erraught’s lovely vocal qualities to the mix, confirming the reasons for Rossini’s love for the coloratura mezzo-soprano fach which, after all, he invented.

Brownlee demonstrates that his awe-inspiring voice fits perfectly with the French language in “Grand Dieu, faut-il qu'un peuple” from Le Siège de Corinthe. Many singers have opined that French is the most difficult language to sing, but Brownlee’s performance here belies that view. The delicacy with which he negotiates the difficult high passages is astounding. “Cher Cléomène” commingles his voice with Erraught’s in a poignant duet that goes straight to the heart.

One can hardly imagine a more fitting finale for this spectacular display of vocal beauty and technique than Armida’s “In quale aspetto imbelle”. Spyres proves he can negotiate the entire range, from the extreme heights to the most profound low notes. Brownlee adds his crystal-clear tones to those of Spyres in a photo finish: a fit of vocal splendor and glory worthy of delight from any Rossini aficionado. In a word, breathtaking. If, as Spyres says of Rossini, “much of his writing for tenor set the boundaries for what the male voice could achieve,” then this sensational album is living proof. 


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

Monday, November 2, 2020

David Gately: Directing Opera in the Time of Covid

Courtesy of the Artist

INTERVIEW: David Gately
Seattle Opera, McCaw Hall

Opera aficionados who were disappointed not to see Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love on the mainstage, will be able to see the frolicking romantic comedy in Seattle Opera’s semi-staged online video stream, available to season ticket holders from November 13–December 4, 2020. Recorded on the McCaw Hall stage at Seattle Center Studios, the cast features Madison Leonard, Michael Adams, Patrick Carfizzi, and Tess Altiveros. Carlo Montanaro conducts pianists and musicians from the Seattle Symphony Orchestra in a staging by David Gately designed especially for online streaming.

Seattle native Gately is a Seattle Opera veteran and has shared his unique talents over the last several decades with opera companies all over the US, Canada and in the UK and France.

Erica Miner: I liked your San Diego “Wild West” Don Pasquale a few years ago. 

David Gately: Yes, it was quite a few years ago [Laughs].

EM: You live in Seattle? 

DG: My home is here. I split my time between my teaching position at TCU, Texas Christian University, and Fort Worth Opera. I run the opera studio there and help integrate our opera program into their local opera scene, but I spend about half my year here in Seattle. It’s a bit of a jaunt to Texas, 4 hours even on a direct flight, but I can come and go pretty easily.

EM: Even these days?

DG: Not exactly. All our summer work was canceled, so I spent the entire summer at home. When I left Fort Worth in May, I drove all the way to Seattle, spent the whole summer here and then drove back in August. I enjoyed the drive. I did fly back here for this show. Flying is very different now, though I felt pretty safe on Delta. They really do an excellent job keeping people as safe as they can.

EM: I’m dying to know about this staging of SO’s Elixir of Love, designed especially for streaming. It must have been a real challenge, in this age of pandemic-driven performances, to mount such a production.

Philip Newton
DG: We have this huge list of health protocols that we have to follow, that come from the city, the state and from our union. They’re very stringent, even the rehearsal process itself. Only the people involved in the production are allowed to be around. Everyone else has to be on a Zoom meeting or watching on Zoom. People wore masks the entire rehearsal process until we actually got onstage. Some of the strictures were, you couldn’t come within 6 feet of anybody if you were not singing, but if you were singing right at someone it had to be a 20-foot distance away. If you were singing out the front, it wasn’t as important to be so far away. Props couldn’t be handed off. A prop had to be put in its place by a gloved prop person. So, if Dulcamara wants to give the bottle of elixir to Nemorino they can’t actually do it from hand to hand. It has to be set down, then sanitized and picked up again. It got quite complicated. However, because we were doing it for recording, we didn’t have to do it in order. We could, for instance, get to a certain point, stop, replace the prop, start rolling again. It looked like the same prop. We’d just do a cut and we’re right back in the action. We found some tricks that helped observe all of these protocols. Yet throughout, the audience won’t know we’re doing them. Initially the idea of this was some sort of concert version, but none of us were terribly interested in that. There’s a lot of that going around these days.

EM: As I’ve heard.

DG: We figured out a way to do a whole production—sets, lighting, costumes, props, everything—as a pretty regular production that is then captured and edited almost like a film—although we don’t have the time to do it like a film, since we only had about 3 days of recording. But it’s going to be edited and then streamed. That’s how it all came about.

EM: That sounds even wilder than the Wild West.

DG: [Laughs] The thing was, everybody was so excited to be working. In these times, nobody’s got a job. Everybody was just gung-ho to do whatever it was we had to do to ensure we could continue this project. Very rigid protocols. Everybody had to be Covid tested every 3 or 4 days. EM: Really? DG: The reason is, they found that if you are infected even 1 minute after your test, it still takes 3-4 days before you start shedding particles that can be infectious. If they test you every 3 days, you can really be on top of things if anybody became positive for Covid. We’re not really a bubble, where you only see the people you’re actually working with. Most of us are isolating ourselves, not doing anything outside except going home or to our hotel rooms, so we’re taking the process incredibly seriously. The protocols just to get into McCaw Hall are quite stringent. Everybody here is masked all the time unless they’re onstage performing. We all felt very safe about it because everyone took it so seriously.

Madison Leonard
Philip Newton

EM: With everything possible is being done, you come out of it with a performance that people can see and enjoy and appreciate, which these days is pretty rare.

DG: This one has its own special qualities, too. I was watching a rough cut yesterday. The cast is young, charming and fun, all wonderful actors. They don’t ever look like they’re performing onstage and just captured with a camera. They really look a bit like they’re in a movie. It’s really fun to watch. I think it’s going to be fun for people to see.

EM: How has it been to work with a very small cast and just a few musicians?

DG: There are 2 grand pianos, actually onstage right in the middle of the action, always playing, which gives it an almost Brechtian feel [Laughs]. Then there are 3 little specialty things that happen. At the beginning of Dulcamara’s aria, introduced with a trumpet fanfare, we have a trumpet player come onstage to be almost part of the action. Then Nemorino’s aria, the very famous Una furtiva lagrima, is accompanied by harp and bassoon, onstage with him. They’re surrounded by all this music making as they perform. But generally, it’s accompanied by 2 pianos.

Andrew Stenson; Philip Newton

EM: The musicians are pretty minimal in number.

DG: That’s correct. I think Christina (Scheppelmann, General Director) is trying to figure out how to involve the orchestra in the next production—Don Giovanni, which I’m not doing. But this is our first foray into this (format) and we want to be really careful, so the logical thing seemed to do it with 2 pianos. The Maestro (Carlo Montanaro) conducts the whole show, so it has a continuity and unity. These are very lively musicians, so the music is fun and exciting to listen to.

Carlo Montanaro
Philip Newton

EM: Sounds like Experimental Theatre.

DG: [Laughs.]

EM: With everything so new, being done for the first time, it must be a huge challenge to make it work. 

DG: It is. I can’t say this new Elixir is going to break new ground as far as concept goes. We’ve kept it pretty straightforward, updated it, set in the 50s, but no chorus, only the 5 principals. I set it in rural Italy because it lends itself to the naïveté of the rural folk. The experimentation and excitement are for the performers to be absolutely natural onstage, not like performing for the big house. They relate to each other as characters and tell the story in a slightly different way. If somebody is looking to see some off-the-wall, groundbreaking Elixir, this isn’t the one. We had our hands full just figuring out how we were going to do it in this manner. But in and of itself I think it’s innovative in a whole lot of different ways. 

Tess Altiveros, Andrew Stenson
Philip Newton

EM: I would call it groundbreaking in that this is your first foray, you’ve never done it this way before, and it’s setting a very good precedent, allowing people to perform and others to get their opera fix.

DG: That’s absolutely true. In reality we’re going to have to do this for a while longer. People are already canceling next year’s season, Broadway is not going to open now until, who knows, January 2022. People ask me when I think this is going to be over and we’ll go back to whatever normal is. My answer is whenever 2,000 people feel comfortable sitting in a room breathing each other’s air, then we’ll be able to go back to performing live. Until that happens, we’re going to have to find other ways. I agree that this is groundbreaking. I give Christina Scheppelmann credit for that. She was the one who conceived of doing this and said no, we’re not just going to do stage concert versions, we’re going to do a production. She was the person who spurred us all on to create this thing. Hopefully it will be a guide for other companies to follow suit.

EM: Brava to Christina. I interviewed her when she first came here and found her ingenious, creative and full of great ideas. I’m not surprised that she came up with this concept. She probably has lots of others. The times are forcing people to be really creative.

DG: She’s totally a force of nature, not just going to sit around and wait. She’ll keep this company relevant. She has so much energy, she’ll make things happen. I feel very encouraged.

Patrick Carfizzi
Philip Newton

EM: I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a long list of opera companies and educational institutions as in your CV, David. How have you managed to work with so many?

DG: Well, I’m old [Laughs]. I’ve been in the business for a long time. In the late 70s I was on staff with Houston Grand Opera, mostly as assistant director. I went out on my own around 1979, with little companies in the US, and started working my way up. I was fortunate to have a lot of people supporting me when I was getting started. Companies made me a regular, which helped me stay in the business and have a regular income. I started with a lot of comedy. Comedy is so much harder. You can only do so much and not get burned out. So, I’d say, yeah, I’ll do your Barber, but I really want to your Bohème too [Laughs]. And they would go, okay. Then I started to branch out into everything. Thanks to Darren Woods, of Fort Worth Opera, I’m now doing tons of new opera. I’ve even done 2 world premieres at TCU. I did Falling and the Rising, a joint production with the Army band, and last year I did Yeltsin in Texas, a comedy by Evan Mack. Doing new works is incredibly exciting for me. The education aspect sort of crept up on me. I actually ran the Brevard training program for young singers for 5 years. And I didn’t have to give up my freelance career. I’ve been busy [Laughs].

EM: You must be one of the few people who can combine academia with performing.

DG: It isn’t easy. I have an incredibly supportive group of administrators over me who really understand that doing outside projects helps the TCU program get better known. My contract as Professor of Professional Practice allows me to go out and practice professionally. It all works to keep me out there in the business.

EM: What was it like to direct a concert version of the opera Angels in America by Hungarian composer Péter Eötvös?

DG: He used Tony Kushner’s version of the play. His wife did the libretto, basically condensing the text so you could see both plays in one evening. Act 1 is the first part and Act 2 the second. I got a lot of mileage out of that. It got me to London with the BBC Orchestra and with the LA Philharmonic, fully staged concert versions. I was an interesting piece. I don’t think it was flawless, but it was exciting to work on that material, and to talk to Tony Kushner about the plays. He came to L.A. and just loved it. He said it was fun to see the play in such a stripped-down version on a concert stage without a lot of sex and stuff, that it made the characters even more vivid. It was really great to meet and talk to him because I have been such a fan for so many years. And he’s very generous of spirit. Some people are incredibly protective of their works. Edward Albee wouldn’t allow people to mess with Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf at all. Yet somebody called up Tony Kushner and said, “Do we make an opera of Angels in America?” And he said, “Yeah, cool, excellent!” [Laughs].

Madison Leonard
Philip Newton

EM: You also directed Matthew Peterson’s Voir Dire and Jorge Martín’s Before Night Falls. Were these two 21st century works very different?

DG: Both amazing. The score that Jorge wrote was so gorgeous orchestrally. In Miami they took this piece so much to heart even though it was about a rather controversial gay writer who was very anti-Castro, moved to New York and was hated by the right wing because he came out. An incredibly interesting story, and beautifully done. Voir Dire was another amazing piece, taken from courtroom transcripts from a small court in Wisconsin and translated into this wild, riveting, almost circus-like evening. At times hysterically funny, at times devastating, about people who went through the legal system. It was a wonderful experience. I love working on new pieces. They’re the most exciting to me. Matthew is a wonderful writer. He’s an American who lives in Sweden.

EM: Thank you, David, for your insightful responses. I look forward to seeing what is sure to be a unique Elixir.

Philip Newton


Photo credits:

Courtesy of the Artist; Philip Newton
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]