Thursday, August 5, 2021

The Dome Opens Again!

l-r, after rehearsal: Henry Gronnier, Ambroise Aubrun, Cécilia Tsan, Elissa Johnston,
Alma Lisa Fernandez.


Cécilia Tsan and friends play Schubert and Tanguy, Mount Wilson Observatory

As the great steel panel over the viewing aperture rumbled aside to admit the clear mountain-top sunlight, it could easily have been taken as a visual metaphor for our current Covid-battered situation. There an in-person audience was at last, and eager to enjoy the first concert in nearly two years of Artistic Director Cécilia Tsan's summer chamber music season at this unique venue, the Dome of the 100-inch Telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory.

But... how precarious a privilege it seemed, with the audience duly masked (apart from a few who seemed to think their noses were exempt) in response to LA County's renewed mandate. And then the viewing aperture partly closed, of course to control the amount of natural light into the interior, but metaphorically seeming to underline how easily this opportunity for partial return to "normality" may have to close again too, should the highly contagious Delta variant, and whatever others may follow, really gain the upper hand.

However, the audience was there and, most importantly, the performers—Elissa Johnston (soprano), Ambroise Aubrun and Henry Gronnier (violins), Alma Lisa Fernandez (viola) and Cécilia Tsan (cello)—and the diem was thoroughly carpe'd by all! The program followed the pattern of previous years—an hour-long recital, followed by a wine-and buffet reception outside, and then repeated for a second audience—and in this case comprised the world première, no less, of a contemporary work, book-ended by minor and major Schubert (but the opposite way around in terms of key signature!).

Vellum copy of the
Salve Regina, c. 1475.
The "Salve Regina" is one of many medieval Christian hymns focused on the Virgin Mary and her powers of redemptive intervention, and Franz Schubert (1797-1828) seems to have been particularly fond of the text, setting it to music no fewer than seven times between 1812 and 1824. His Salve Regina in A major D. 676 Op. Post. 153 is the penultimate of these, written in 1819 possibly for the soprano Therese Grob, with whom he had been in love and had hoped to marry.

Inevitably many by-ways in an output as voluminous as Schubert's remain to be explored, and this particular piece was new to me. Scored for soprano and, unspecifically, just "strings," the performance by Ms. Johnston and her colleagues showed that it works just as well with a quartet accompaniment as with full string orchestra, as revealed by a search of YouTube's endless resources to be more usually the case—and in a remarkably wide range of interpretations, from near-lugubrious to almost jaunty.

Schubert's marking is Andante con moto, and though the performance at around 10 minutes seemed a little slow for this, his endless gift for memorable melody spun its consolatory magic, with the brief passages that rise above the general piano/pianissimo dynamic of the work enabling Ms. Johnston's ample voice to resound with thrilling effect. Under the circumstances the Dome's acoustic seemed more than ever like that of a cathedral, but without the fog of excessive reverberation common in ecclesiastical spaces.

Le Lys et la Lyre (The Lily and the Lyre) is a setting for soprano and cello by the French composer Éric Tanguy (b. 1968) of a poem by François Cheng (b. 1921). As the program note made admirably clear, the work, written for and dedicated to Cécilia Tsan and here receiving its world première, embodies not only this artistic collaboration between composer and artist, but also the friendship of the poet with Ms. Tsan's parents, who like him emigrated from China to Paris in the 1950s. And, to complete the circle, M. Cheng himself apparently conceived of Tanguy setting the poem to music.

Cécilia Tsan with (left) François Cheng, and (right) Éric Tanguy.

It's always perilous to write about any music on just one hearing, but Le Lys et la Lyre, at virtually the same duration as the Schubert, seemed in the context of this concert an admirable companion to it, with the radiant melody-plus-accompaniment of its predecessor's treatment of faithful supplication replaced by an intertwining of voice and cello that expressed a kind of humanistic counterpart—a paean to universal interconnectedness gained through sensual experience. Ms. Tsan's and Ms. Johnston's performance was as devoted, skillful, and eloquent as any composer could desire for a première. 

Rather than any French contemporary or predecessor, the feeling behind and even to some extent the soundworld of Tanguy's work brought to mind, of all things, Sibelius's Luonnotar, in its open-eyed and open-hearted mythic embrace of all that the world and the universe have to offer, though of course without the orchestral sonorities and often extreme vocal demands of the tone-poem. Further hearings may modify, or even negate this impression, and I look forward to them.

So far, so good, in the sense that both these vocal/instrumental pieces in their different ways essentially expressed positivity and hope. For me, however, the haunted apprehensiveness that opens and largely imbues Schubert's great String Quartet No. 13 in A minor "Rosamunde" D. 804, Op. 29, felt truly aligned with current circumstances. This, his only string quartet to be published in his lifetime, was previously heard at Mount Wilson during Ms. Tsan's second season as Artistic Director, and my reaction to the work per se remained pretty much as expressed in my review of that concert.

Schubert in 1825.
This time the pervasive uncertainty and foreboding of the first movement seemed yet more intensified, not least by the observation (as not on that earlier occasion) of the long exposition repeat. Notably the four separated chords that climax the first subject group—marked by Schubert as just forte rather than ff, and which thus in some performances go for fairly little—in the hands of these players both times slashed the air like strokes from a mighty saber.

With that repeat included, their spacious account of the first movement extended to well over one-third of the total duration, and the sense of a front-loaded expressive balance was confirmed by the Andante, embodying the "Rosamunde" theme that gives the work its nickname, which follows. Here, the surprisingly quick tempo for the theme made the movement feel more like a harried gesture towards solace, rather than the peaceful counterpart to the first movement that it usually is, and in turn allied it more to the haunted mood of the ensuing Menuetto, where the semi-tonal shudder and long-held E on the cello that introduces the main Allegretto theme, at once hesitant and serpentine, on the other instruments, again sounded in Ms. Tsan's hands as a Norn-like warning.

In the major-key finale the warmth that Schubert finally admits with the main theme's "call-and-echo village band" quality was given full value by the players, but the shadows cast by the minor-key second subject were equally pronounced, as was the full impact of the movement's central judder to a halt. The "village band" theme was a shadow of its former self in its recapitulation, and the two peremptory ff chords with which its final running out of steam are concluded were as emphatically not a Schubertian happy ending as in any performance I have heard.

All in all, this was a truly memorable return to the mountain-top, fervently appreciated by the masked audience. In both the Salve Regina and the "Rosamunde" Quartet Messrs. Aubrun, Gronnier, Fernandez, and Tsan played not only with all the individual skill and expressive commitment that one would expect, but also with a mutual empathy and coherence that would grace many a named string quartet with decades of collaboration under their belt. 

One more pair of concerts remain in this truncated fourth Mount Wilson season—the Lounge Art Ensemble Jazz Trio on September 5, tickets here.


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 1 August 2021,
3:00 p.m. and 5:00 p.m. 
Photos: Post-rehearsal: Nathan Chwat; The Dome: Carlos Hernandez; With François Cheng and Éric Tanguy: Courtesy Cécilia Tsan; The performance: Danaë Vlasse; Salve Regina ms and Schubert: Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday, July 18, 2021

Eric Owens Brings Wagnerian Expertise to Seattle Re-opening

Dario Acosta


Fisher Pavilion, Seattle 

Bass-baritone Eric Owens’ appearance as Wotan in Seattle Opera’s Aug. 28 Welcome Back Concert performance of Wagner’s Die Walküre will be multiply eventful. It is his SO debut among a stellar cast of other notable Wagnerians. Just as significant, the exciting outdoor event, at Seattle Center's Fisher Pavilion Lawn, with Seattle Symphony Conductor Emeritus Ludovic Morlot at the helm, will be the first live post-pandemic opening for the company. 

The two-time Grammy award winning Owens has a CV on the world stage that would be the envy of many opera singers in his fach. He champions both the classical/romantic repertoire and new music: from Mozart and Beethoven to Verdi and Gershwin, the Met Opera to Chicago and Santa Fe, playing heroes, villains, and everything in between. 

Erica Miner: Welcome to Seattle! Is this your SO debut?

Eric Owens: Yes, and it’s so exciting. Seattle Opera is a company I’ve admired for so long. It will be so nice to be performing there. 

EM: And what a way to make your debut, as Wotan.

EO: Yes! Thought it will be quite different in a concert version, and also not the full opera. They have made alterations and cuts to accommodate the time and space requirements. Still, it’s so exciting, a role I very much enjoy doing. With wonderful friends of mine singing (Angela Meade, Brandon Jovanovich, Raymond Aceto, Alexandra Lobianco), that really makes it special. I adore Christina Scheppelmann, and so admire her for making it happen.

EM: Have you sung with any of these singers before?

EO: I’ve sung with Brandon. I know Angela very well, though I’ve not sung with her before.

EM: And you and they are all great in Wagnerian roles. Let’s go back in time a way. What was your journey to the opera stage?

EO: [Laughs] Oh, wow. I started taking piano age 6 at the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia. While I was there, I found myself listening to singers and got interested in the operatic voice. Then I listened to recordings, especially, Luciano Pavarotti’s I Puritani. That especially inspired me. I also learned to play oboe at age 11, which I did for quite a while, eventually becoming a professional at age 16 freelancing in Philadelphia. I began singing in my high school choir, and the director noticed something worth pursuing, so he gave me solos and I started taking voice lessons senior as a high school senior. I studied as an undergrad at the Boyer College of Music at Temple University and did my grad work at the Curtis Institute. After that I was a Young Artist at the Houston Opera Studio and my career launched from there.

EM: Did you find that your study of the oboe helped with your breath control as a singer?

EO: They’re so different. With the oboe, it’s a question of getting rid of enough air. Before you take a breath, you have to exhale get rid of bad air. That of course is not the case with singing. So, one didn’t necessarily help the other.

EM: You have quite a history with Wagner operas: Chicago, the Met. Tell us about those.

EO: I sang Wotan in Chicago, all 3 Ring operas. Alberich in the Met Ring and also Hagen in the Met Götterdämmerung. So, I’ve sung in all 4 Ring operas. I also sang Flying Dutchman with Washington National Opera.

EM: You are quite the Wagnerite.

EO: It’s funny because some Wagner I really love to sing. I’ve been fortunate enough to sing all 4 Ring operas.

EM: Which you could say are the pinnacle of his works. Do you plan to perform more Wagner in the future?

EO: There are some Ring cycles in my future, though I can’t yet say which companies, since they haven’t been announced. I’m also going to sing King Marke in Tristan.

EM: That’s a whole other level.

EO: Isn’t it! I see Wagner like Bach. The music is so emotional, so ingenious, without advertising that genius.

EM: In both, the emotion is deep underneath, and they were both such geniuses.

EO: Yes. You can look at them in terms of being mathematicians, but the music is not so cold.

Seattle Center Marketing

EM: Which Wagner roles would you most love to play?

EO: I would love to play Amfortas in Parsifal. I’ve sung that part in concert and would love to do it onstage. The music speaks to me, the depth of his despair. The way it’s written grabs your heart and takes you on this journey.

EM: The ultimate thing, Wagner’s final glory of a masterpiece. You’ve performed both on the opera and concert stages. What are some of your most memorable appearances in either or both?

EO: In concert, I had an amazing experience in the staged St. Matthew Passion with the Berlin Philharmonic. We performed it in Berlin and then went on tour with it to New York and London. The piece is incredibly powerful. It speaks to me. The whole experience was a tremendous gift. Those are events I’ll never forget. On the opera stage, a L’Incoronazione di Poppea with English National Opera was in ways the pinnacle experience of my career. Everyone in the cast was totally at the service of music, the drama. We all were there for everyone else.

EM: Who conducted?

EO: Harry Christophers.

EM: He’s a Baroque specialist?

EO: Yes, he is.

EM: Sounds like a win-win.

EO: The Baroque is my favorite musical period. I’m not necessarily known for performing it, but I love the music and spend a lot of time listening to it.

EM: Your experience with contemporary opera is quite extensive. Describe some of the highlights.

EO: The highlights are especially when the piece written for me, like John Adams’ The Flowering Tree, which premiered in Vienna, and the world premiere of his Doctor Atomic at San Francisco Opera. At the Houston Opera Studio, every year a new piece is written for the members. I remember Ricky Ian Gordon’s The Tibetan Book of the Dead, and Jackie O by Michael Daugherty. That was very early on in my career.

EM: It must be exciting to do a work that no one’s ever heard before.

EO: There’s a certain responsibility, but also a level of comfort. No one can compare you to anyone else! But to have a chance to work with the composer, learn what they meant by the music. I would kill to have conversation with some of the long-gone composers. It’s such a gift to have the composer right there.

EM: Tell us about serving on the Board of Trustees of the National Foundation for Advancement in the Arts, and Astral Artistic Services.

EO: I’m no longer on those boards, but it was a great experience. NFAA is now called Young Arts. I was one of their award recipients in high school. I served on the board for 3 or 4 years. I always find working with young artists very fulfilling. Both organizations all about young artists. Serving on the boards was a way of giving back. AAS is a Philadelphia organization that helps young artists by giving them performing opportunities. Going into the community, schools, retirement communities, who desperately need the gift of music. The outreach amazing, plus they put on their own live recitals in the Philadelphia area. I credit them with giving me many opportunities to perform, hone my craft, speak to audiences, when I was a young artist. To connect with the audience, not just musically but verbally.

EM: Especially this past year, with all the performances online, verbal connection has become incredibly important.

EO: Making use of that, the audience gets more from the experience overall. That’s very important.

EM: Is there anything you would like to add to our discussion?

EO: Just to reiterate I’m really excited about making my debut with Seattle Opera.

EM: And as Wotan, who makes trouble for everyone!

EO: Yes! [Laughs.]

EM: Thanks so much, Eric. We’re so looking forward to hearing and see you, live.

EO: Thank you, Erica. 

Details about Seattle Opera’s Welcome Back Concert can be found at:


Photo credits: Dario Acosta, Seattle Center Marketing
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Disney Hall first time opening post-Covid, for LACO

LACO Music Director Jaime Martín with Concertmaster Margaret Batjer.

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles

For this special late-June LACO Summerfest concert—a one-off invitation-only event, underwritten by the philanthropists Terri and Jerry Kohl, "for LACO friends and family, vital community partners and others who have helped the orchestra weather the pandemic"—the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was definitely acting as a pathfinder in the careful tiptoe back to something resembling live concert-going normality.

A palpable sense of anticipatory joy and relief invested the 800-strong, fully vaccinated audience—despite the concert start-time being pushed back considerably due to some stumbles in Disney Hall's ticket issuing and distribution around the Covid-checking tables outside—and this exploded into applause when firstly LACO's Executive Director Ben Cadwallader, then Concertmaster Margaret Batjer, and finally Music Director Jaime Martín successively took to the platform.

Alberto Ginastera.
Señor Martín's (splendidly unhackneyed) program sought to "pay homage to a physical location, in two pieces, the birthplace of the composer, and in the third, an inspirational destination" and thus it moved from mid-20th century Argentina as represented in a work by Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), back to Italy in the early 19th century, seen and heard through the eyes and ears of Felix Mendelssohn on his tour of Europe, separated by a leap forward in time to an aural fresco of 21st century mariachi from the young Mexican composer, Juan Pablo Contreras (born 1987).

Ginastera's Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23, composed in 1953, is just what each half of its title says it is—a set of variations and a kind of concerto for chamber orchestra—but it has neither, on the one hand, a strongly contoured tune whose possibilities are explored in various ways, nor, on the other, any soloistic grandstanding, so that it instead fulfills its designations by the evocation of various moods, mostly contemplative or anticipatory, through changing instrumental colors and pacing, as if glinting off the facets of an idly turning mirrored disco ball.

The construction of Variaciones concertantes is as subtle as its sound-world (names of LACO soloists in this performance noted as follows). Against slow guitar-like arpeggios on the harp (Elisabeth Zosseder), a solo cello (Andrew Shulman) intones the slowly stepwise-rising theme. An equally contemplative interlude on the strings precedes the first (giocosa) variation, and here, as in all those to come, the designated flute (Sandy Hughes) proved to be in more of an equal concerto grosso type of relationship with the main body of players than a full-fledged soloist.

Successively the clarinet (Joshua Ranz), viola (Erik Rynearson), oboe and bassoon (Claire Brazeau and Ken Monday), trumpet and trombone (David Washburn and Alex Iles), violin (Margaret Batjer), and horn (Michael Thornton) fulfilled their highly varied concertante roles, before another interlude, this time for winds, led to a reprise of the theme, now on solo double bass (David Grossman) against those familiar harp arpeggios, giving way in turn to a joyous variation finale in rondo form for the full forces.

Sandy Hughes (flute) and
Claire Brazeau (oboe).
The orchestra clearly relished every opportunity that Ginastera's mastery of each instrument's characteristics and possibilities afforded them, both individually and in ensemble playing as tight as it was whiplash clear, as heard from high aloft in the Disney Hall's balcony, and the audience loved it.

For me Contreras' Mariachitlán suffered a little in comparison, following as it did such a many-sided and subtle masterpiece, but then one could, and probably should, regard it simply as a skillfully wrought occasional piece meant to do nothing but entertain—which it certainly did, in this chamber orchestra version newly-commissioned by LACO from the 2016 full orchestra original (which can be enjoyed on the composer's website).

In his own words Mariachitlán "recounts my experience visiting the Plaza de los Mariachis in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, a place where mariachis play their songs in every corner and interrupt each other to win over the crowd." My observant spouse also likened it to hearing your car radio keep losing the signal and drifting between stations—in this case from a canción ranchera to a vals romántico to a son jalisciense, and back—beguiling, ear-tickling, fun.

Juan Pablo Contreras enjoys the enthusiastic applause following Jaime Martín and the LACO's performance of his Mariachitlán.

The great English critic and musicologist Donald Tovey described the Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 "Italian" as "one of Mendelssohn's most perfect works" and in a performance as smiling and celebratory as Jaime Martín and LACO delivered, who could argue? My only cavil was the omission of the first movement exposition repeat (why, when Mendelssohn took the trouble to write one of the longest lead-backs, all 23 measures of it, in the Classical symphonic repertoire?).

Mendelssohn at the time of
the composition of his
Italian Symphony.
Otherwise there was plenty to appreciate in the Symphony's scrupulously accented Allegro vivace first movement—its textures all the more brilliant and aerated by it not being taken too fast—and in the attention to dynamics and articulation of the cellos' and basses' steady groups of staccato eighth notes that underpin of much of the slow movement.

Though it is marked Con moto moderato, the minuet-like third movement was to my ears perhaps a bit too leisurely—its themes do come around a lot of times—but there was nothing but gain in the Presto Saltarello finale not being taken at quite the Derby-winner dash which some performances affect, but here still with all the élan and precision that one could desire.

Inevitably, such a celebratory evening had to have an encore, and in making his choice Jaime Martín completed the trio of Iberia-related pieces by turning to his native Spain for the Intermedio from El baile de Luis Alonso, a two-acter written in 1896 by the Seville-born Zarzuela composer Gerónimo Giménez (1854-1923). This seems to be his only piece with any concert or recording presence, at least outside Spain, and its cheery, castanets-driven five minutes, played and conducted with swagger and panache, made a good advertisement for seeking out more music by Giménez.

Jaime Martín and Andrew Shulman play Telemann's Cunando.

Before the "official" encore, however, there had been an extra item. In response to a specific request from the principal sponsors, who were seated in the front row, Señor Martín laid down the baton and took up his flute (before his conducting career he had for many years been a distinguished orchestra principal and solo flautist) for a performance of the brief and touching third movement Cunando from Telemann's Sonate metodiche No. 3 in E minor, TWV 41:e2

 As anyone who has experienced, say, Yo Yo Ma's accounts of the Bach solo Cello Suites at the Proms in London's vast Royal Albert Hall, there is a unique magic to chamber music performed in a very large auditorium, and here in Disney's cavernous expanses the sound of Señor Martín's flute had a remote and ineffable purity that seemed to make the entire audience catch and hold its collective breath for the two-and-a-half minutes or so, with Mr. Shulman's cello etching in the accompanying continuo role with the utmost delicacy. Memorable indeed. 


Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Walt Disney Hall, Saturday, June 26, 2021, 7 p.m.
Photos: The performance: Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging; Ginastera: Wikimedia Commons; Mendelssohn: pencil drawing by Eduard Bendemann, c 1833, Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 11, 2021

POP pops back with a rare Bizet opera—and ostriches

l-r: Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez (Euphemia), Scott Levin (Andronico), Ben Lowe (Don Procopio), Armando Contreras (Ernesto), Rachel Policar (Bettina), Jon Lee Keenan (Odoardo).

Bizet's "Don Procopio", Pacific Opera Project, Heritage Square Museum,
Los Angeles

The first, and last, thing to be said about Pacific Opera Project's production of Bizet's early opera buffa, Don Procopio, is that this propulsively energized, inventively staged and lit, virtuosically sung, and endearingly silly take on what was only Bizet's second completed opera (out of no fewer than 15, some of them never completed) was the perfect antidote to the long months of Covid-induced live-performance drought—at least for the capacity audience that whistled and cheered its enthusiasm from the greensward centered amongst the Heritage Square Museum's collection of historic buildings.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was something of a youthful prodigy, and won the prestigious Grande Prix de Rome at the age of only 18. Once established in Rome for his three-year stay, he wrote home that, to fulfil the prize's composition requirement, he had settled on an "Italian farce in the manner of [Donizetti's] Don Pasquale" using a libretto by one Carlo Cambiaggio that he found in one of Rome's used bookstores. Bizet proceeded to work on and complete the score of Don Procopio over the winter of 1858-59, but it was never performed in his lifetime, and only published in 1905 in a version edited by Charles Malherbe.

Bizet at the time of his
Prix de Rome win.
Imitation Donizetti or Rossini Don Procopio may be, but Bizet uses their tropes skillfully to create a score that is well-proportioned, concise, and tuneful, and in which aspects of his own mature style begin to be glimpsed in places. His only previous opera, written before he won the Prix de Rome, was a one-acter entitled Doctor Miracle, but whereas that begins with a formal, self-contained overture, when he came to Don Procopio Bizet chose to launch straight into the first of its two shortish acts (run together, in POP's production, as a single 90-minute span) with an ebullient ensemble of chorus and soloists that immediately lays out the "dramatic" situation.

The Cambiaggio libretto had an already well-worn and rather ageist plot, in which one old miser, Don Andronico, schemes to marry his niece Bettina to another, Don Procopio, on the grounds that a young spouse would be a spendthrift. But Bettina is already in love, unsurprisingly, with young Odoardo and, aided by aunt Eusebia and brother Ernesto, contrives to thwart the oldies' plans.

Euphemia and Andronico argue.
POP Artistic Director Josh Shaw drew inspiration for his production from the history of the Highland Park area around the Museum, which had included, back around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, ostrich farming. Thus the setting, unspecified in Cambiaggio's original, became Andronico's Ostrich Farm and much hilarity ensued, as when the chorus (Bizet's full forces reduced to just four: Matt Welch, Rachel Freed, William Grundler, and Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt) in due course not only sang but also impersonated both dancing ostriches and humans astride ostriches, thanks to quick-change costuming.

There was not a weak link amongst the cast, most of whom were stalwarts of previous POP productions. Surely much sprightlier than the part was originally conceived, the Andronico of Scott Levin (bass-baritone) and Euphemia (Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez, mezzo-soprano) nimbly negotiated the shoals of syllables—against repeated staccato interruptions from the chorus—in Bizet's rapid-fire setting of their opening dispute about the marital fate of Bettina. She, in the person of Rachel Policar (soprano) resplendent in ostrich feather head-piece, immediately demonstrated herself to be, in her taxing opening aria railing against her fate, as equal to the threat as she was vocally secure.

Bettina bewails her fate.
Don Procopio himself was Ben Lowe (baritone), robust both in voice and appearance to an extent that rather undercut the part of frail old dodderer as written, but who cared? The fairly brief role of "romantic lead" Odoardo was taken by Jon Lee Keenan (tenor), whose radiant singing of the Serenade that opens Act Two (its haunting melody recycled by Bizet in The Fair Maid of Perth eight years later) just about overcame the effect of the character being dressed in a check suit of clownish loudness. To complete the cast, the Ernesto of Armando Contreras (baritone) gleefully joined in the torpedoing of the hapless Procopio. 

The entry on Bizet in the 1954 fifth edition of Grove's Dictionary notes that in his arrangement of the score for its publication, Malherbe "completely falsified it by adding [...] recitatives and an entr'acte in most inappropriate imitation of Bizet's later style[...]." 67 years on, later scholarship may or may not refute that academic finger-wagging but fake Bizet or not, POP included the entr'acte as a ballet pas de deux for two ostriches that culminated in a very sprightly-looking chick emerging from an egg discreetly laid, rear center-stage.

The ostrich pas de deux: William Grundler and Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt.

The chorus as chorus: l-r Matt Welch, Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt, Rachel Freed, William Grundler.

Edoardo and Bettina declare their
love, with onlookers.
As a whole, the performance was not quite perfect, part of the difficulty being that, even within the comedic framework, there's not the slightest dramatic tension—Procopio himself rapidly wants as much to be out of the situation as Bettina et al desire him gone. Musically Bizet compensates for this with some lovely writing for the would-be soulful romance between Bettina and Odoardo, but I felt that the production's laser-focus on the farcical somewhat undermined this.

Some of the solo singing was a little less than secure, perhaps with the need to keep the buffa ball constantly bouncing and bobbing being traded for exactness of pitch—and perhaps also due to the very small instrumental forces not being audible enough in the open-air setting to give the support that Bizet's normal theater orchestra would have provided. A bigger band would have added depth and richness throughout, which is not to say that Music Director Charlie Kim and his intrepid group of just four strings and two woodwind gave their part all the verve and commitment that could be desired.

Don Procopio menaced by particularly attentive ostrich (William Grundler).


In brief remarks before the performance began, Josh Shaw noted that the whole production had come together, from initial idea to realization on the temporary stage erected against the façade of the Museum's 1897 Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church, in just six weeks, and paid tribute to all who had made it possible. I for one hope that this quite astonishing achievement—Don Procopio's West Coast premiere, a mere 162 years late, be it noted—might eventually be augmented by a fuller-scaled indoor production, perhaps in a double-bill with Doctor Miracle...?


Pacific Opera Project, Heritage Square Museum, 8 p.m., Sunday, June 6, 2021.
Images: Production photos: Martha Benedict; Bizet: Courtesy KDFC. Cawston Ostrich Farm poster: eBay.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Michael Chioldi Believes in the Power of Opera

Philip Newton

INTERVIEW: Michael Chioldi 

St. James Cathedral, Seattle 

Baritone Michael Chioldi is a singer’s singer. The New York City-based award-winning baritone and Pittsburgh, PA, native specializes in dramatic roles of Verdi, Puccini, and Strauss and has performed at most major US opera houses. Aside from performing at the Metropolitan Opera, Chioldi recently appeared at Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Utah Opera, Austin Opera and Palm Beach Opera. 

This month, from June 25-27, Chioldi’s powerful rendering of the infamous villain Scarpia in Seattle Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca will stream online. Tosca is one of the most beloved operas of all time, and Chioldi has much to say about the role and others he has performed during his outstanding career.

Erica Miner: Congratulations on your Seattle Opera debut, Michael! We’ve been eagerly awaiting you! I believe it’s been a long time in coming.

Michael Chioldi: Thank you! Yes, several years ago, Speight (Jenkins, former SO general manager) offered me the role of Figaro in Rossini’s Barber of Seville but there was a conflict and it never happened. I didn’t really know Aidan (Lang, Jenkins’s successor), but Christina (Scheppelmann, current general manager) has been a big supporter of mine since my beginning days. She helped make my San Francisco Opera debut happen, and now I’m thrilled to be here for Scarpia.

EM: When did you know you wanted to be an opera singer?

MC: I always felt I had the performing bug, even in high school. My Italian-Austrian family, cultured though middle class, was musical. My brother and sister played piano and accordion, and I grew up playing guitar. The emphasis was on good food, good shoes, and music [Laughs]. I originally wanted to be a doctor, but I switched to music as an undergrad at West Virginia University. I was from the Pittsburgh area, a little coal mining town of a thousand or so, called Avonmore. It was fun growing up there, everyone knew everyone else. I wanted to get out of the small town, but I didn’t want to go too far from home, so I chose West Virginia U.

EM: How long did it take you to switch to music?

MC: The bug bit me early on. I auditioned for the voice studio at Virginia, but I didn’t know what to sing, so I sang the National Anthem [Sings]. Their mouths just dropped, and before it went any further, they said, “Go get the opera director.” He offered me the role of Sam in Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. And I said no because I was so busy! [Laughs] But then I heard them practice the opera and I suddenly regretted saying no. Then, as fate would have it, the guy who had been offered the role had a family emergency and I was asked to do it. This time I said yes! In rehearsal I was just struck by everything about the opera, and about opera overall. I thought, if could do this for a living—well, it just hit me that it was what I really wanted to do. I finished undergrad and went to Yale for my masters. Then I got a phone call from Houston Grand Opera. They were looking for baritone. So, I went to Houston after my masters. There were some wonderful singers there—Ana Maria Martinez and Jill Grove among them. A very good class! I sang 10 roles in 2 years.

EM: That must have been amazing. What an experience.

MC: Yes! In 1995 I won competitions, including the Met National Council Auditions. My mom and dad got to see me on the Met stage in the winners’ concert. It was significant for me, since that was the last time I saw my dad. After that I went to Europe, came back here and did the regional circle, then became the go-to baritone at New York City Opera, doing 4 operas a season. From 1999 to 2009 I sang there full time and my repertoire changed as got older. I started out with Papageno, and other light roles, comprimario roles like Morales. Now I’m doing Verdi and more dramatic rep at bigger houses, here and in Europe. Macbeth, Rigoletto, Nabucco. It’s a singer’s dream, to start out with small, “baby” beginning baritone roles and graduate to Mozart, bel canto, and ultimately Verdi.

EM: Let’s talk about Seattle’s Tosca. I assume it’s been socially distanced. What has that been like?

Philip Newton

MC: As it’s been done thus far, we rehearsed and then filmed. We flew in, quarantined for the proper amount of time, and followed all the very strict protocols. We were tested every 3 days. Let me tell you, I was more than ready not to have that stick up my nose anymore! Then they broke down the process. We recorded with the orchestra in Benaroya Hall. What a beautiful hall. Such great acoustics.

EM: It is indeed. We love it.

MC: The orchestra was onstage, and the singers were at microphones socially distanced throughout the hall. After they mastered the recording, they piped it in while filming it at the historic St. James Cathedral in Seattle and we lip synched along with it. Believe me, 5 weeks was just enough time to do it. It was intense, really difficult.

EM: It does sound like a challenge. Was it filmed in color?

MC: Yes. In fact, it reminded me of some of the old movies of Tosca, like from the 50s.

EM: Is Scarpia one of your favorite roles?

MC: How can it not be. Not only is it amazing music, but it also has the best entrance of all of opera. Then you’re onstage for 30 minutes and you end Act 1 with the Te Deum. It’s one of the greatest grand moments in all of opera.

EM: And then there’s Act 2.

MC: Yes. Act 2 can be an act totally on its own.

EM: What are some of your other favorite roles?

MC: I love playing more complex roles, ones with different colors, that I can enjoy now that my voice is darker, bigger. I can play with those colors. Iago is one. I’ve sung 3 different productions of Otello. Rigoletto is fun to play. He’s like a Marvel Movies anti-hero. I consider myself a singer’s singer, but my voice is also caught up with acting.

EM: I imagine Rigoletto must lie really well in the voice.

MC: I enjoy Rigoletto. Singing it is definitely challenging. I think Verdi is the best composer for the baritone voice. It’s like he thought of himself as the baritone role in the operas he wrote. Germont in Traviata is a scene stealer. So are Ford and Falstaff, and other baritone title characters.

EM: How about Simon Boccanegra?

MC: I can’t wait to do Boccanegra. I just did Luisa Miller. Though it’s not one of the most recognizable operas, I loved doing it.

EM: You’ve also premiered some operas—the role of Man in Anthony Brandt’s The Birth of Something comes to mind—in fact, you’ve done a fair amount of contemporary opera.

MC: In the earlier days of my career, I was well known for modern music, as a quick learner and good musician. At one time I was getting pieces in the mail from composers almost every day asking if I would do them. At one point I had to choose if I would stick with that or go with the more traditional rep. I always knew I wanted to do Verdi, whereas the modern music, with its disjunct melodies, can be taxing on the voice. That said, I did have to be versatile. When I teach, I tell my students to be as versatile as possible, especially these days. Overall, I think the day of the big opera career may largely be over. It’s more a “gig” life now. New operas keep people coming, which is great. It’s important to do what must be done to keep the art form alive. But there has to be a balance.
Peter Konerko

EM: I was fascinated to read that you sang in Kurt Weill’s The Protagonist.

MC: I loved that opera. We did it at Santa Fe. It was such a magical summer. I sang in the Greek chorus, part of a troop of 3 players that appeared all throughout the opera. It was really tiring. They had to hide oxygen tanks in various places for the singers! I adore Kurt Weill; he takes you right back to the 1920s. Very cinematic.

EM: How do you feel about singing in English? A number of singers I’ve interviewed have said it’s quite difficult.

MC: Yes, it can be taxing, but in a different way from other languages.

EM: You had a chance to sing the infrequently performed Debussy & Poe: Fall of the House of Usher & Devil in the Belfry. What was that like?

MC: That was a really interesting project in New York City, which was pieced together. Very intimate, jazzy, bluesy, sexy and heady. Kind of the polar opposite of Verdi grand opera. I got to access the more tender parts of my instrument and my acting. I wish I could do more of that. In a museum setting, it made perfect sense. I also got to do The Andrée Expedition, a song cycle by Dominic Argento about a hot air balloon trip to the North Pole, in a marble museum in Vermont. That was wonderful, masterful. I’m now developing it as a one man show. I had written to Argento about it, and he was so excited at the idea. He wrote me an amazing letter back, which I’m going to include in the show.

EM: What’s coming up next for you?

MC: This August in Arizona, I’m doing a workshop for a one-man show. I won grant to develop it with 3-D immersive technology.

EM: That sounds revolutionary.

MC: Then in September, Rigoletto with New York City Opera in upstate New York and Bryant Park in the city. I’m going back to my hometown of Pittsburgh to give a solo recital at the beautiful Carnegie Music Hall in the Museum of Fine Arts. I’ve never sung there and it’s my first time back.

EM: The Prodigal Son returns.

MC: [Laughs] Then back to Seattle for la Bohème later that month.

EM: You’re definitely showing your love for opera in a big way.

MC: Opera is vital to the fabric of society. It touches people in a different way than any other art form. The power of the acoustic voice can touch people in a different way.

EM: Your commitment to that is positively inspiring. Thanks so much, Michael, for sharing your insights. 

Streaming information can be found at:


Photo credits: Philip Newton, Peter Konerko
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

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!