Wednesday, January 16, 2019

Last and First Thoughts at the Pacific Symphony

The demon Chernabog, from the Night on Bald Mountain sequence in Disney's Fantasia (1940).


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

The Pacific Symphony’s intelligently planned first concert of 2019—Mussorgsky’s Night on Bald Mountain, Chopin’s First Piano Concerto, and Prokofiev’s Seventh Symphony—was the perfect cleanser for any lingering holiday staleness. It was vividly played, insightfully conducted by guest David Danzmayr, and in Gabriela Martinez showcased a soloist who drew from the Segerstrom’s Steinway sounds that were an ideal blend of clarity and warmth.

Mussorgsky in 1865.
Still ineradicably associated, after nearly 80 years, with the Disney Fantasia animators’ vision of Chernabog the demon unfurling his wings atop the titular “Bald Mountain”, the music that formed an unholy alliance with that image went through several metamorphoses before it reached cinemas in 1940.

For it, conductor Leopold Stokowski heavily re-orchestrated and made considerable cuts to the version of Night on Bald Mountain edited in 1886 by Rimsky-Korsakov, which itself drew from both the original 1867 tone-poem and Mussorgsky’s late insertion of parts of it into Act One of the unfinished opera The Fair at Sorochyntsi (1874-1880).

Portrait of Rimsky-Korsakov
by Ilya Repin (1893).
It would have been instructive to hear the startlingly different Mussorgsky original, not to say fun to get the sliced, diced, and beefed-up Stokowski version with a Blu-ray® projection via the Hall’s deluxe a/v system, but I had no issue with the familiar and consummately orchestrated and structured Rimsky version.

Its initial Allegro feroce has no metronome mark (Vivace in the original, at a virtually unplayable quarter note=184!), but Mr. Danzmayr’s fairly measured way with the opening violin oscillations made space for a truly ferocious digging-in to the dotted strings-and-woodwind chords that introduce the heavy brass’s baying out of the ominous main theme. Couple that with whiplash-sharp skirls and emphatically punched-out sforzandi for the full forces, and this performance was clearly going to be one to remember. 

Perhaps the most telling moments came with the eloquent playing by section principals Joseph Morris (clarinet) and Benjamin Smolen (flute) of their solos in the consolatory “dawn” conclusion (entirely missing from Mussorgsky’s original, where the demonic revels continue unabated to the end). Maybe it would have added even more atmosphere to have the bell offstage, but who’s complaining?

It might seem a bit perverse to start talking about the performance of Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1 in E minor Op. 11 with the orchestra’s contribution, but it does have the first movement exposition all to itself before the piano enters, and Mr. Danzmayr and his forces certainly made the maestoso most of it. The employment of the PSO’s full string complement added to the almost Brahmsian heft, though without any exaggerated slowing when the violins introduced the beautiful cantabile second subject.

Gabriela Martinez.
When Ms. Martinez finally entered I did feel her opening solo statement in octaves of the first subject (Chopin in 1830 sticking to the Classical precedent of a second exposition led by the soloist) to be slightly underpowered—not quite the fortissimo he asks for. But then the crystalline beauty of her fingerwork was immediately in such exquisite contrast to the richness of the preceding orchestral tutti that to object would be churlish.

Portrait of Chopin (1829),
by Ambroży Mieroszewski.
Throughout the performance, indeed, the most notable characteristic of her playing was a mellifluous songfulness that in the first movement really came into its own in the long passages where Chopin dwells on his second subject so much that it seems as if he cannot bear to leave it. Fine playing from first horn Keith Popejoy and principal bassoon Rose Corrigan of the passages where they counterpoint the piano line underlined how skillfully and sensitively Chopin could write for other instruments, and indeed the many felicities in the PSO’s fine account made me regret that Chopin composed so few works for orchestra.

His pp string writing at the start of the Romanze is exquisite, and the successive overlapping entries of each section, muted, were conducted and played with hushed concentration; Ms. Martinez’s entry was the perfect continuation of the same musing thoughtfulness. By contrast, after a relatively measured take by Mr. Danzmayr and the PSO on the Vivace opening of the finale, she bounded cleanly away with the main rondo theme into an account of the movement that abounded in delicious give-and-take with the PSO, both individually and collectively.

David Danzmayr with the Pacific Symphony.
Before the concert began, Mr. Danzmayr had picked up the microphone for a few introductory words, almost entirely about Prokofiev’s Symphony No. 7 in C-sharp minor, Op. 131, which filled the second half and was, he said, by far his favorite of Prokofiev's symphonies. Composed in 1952 and thus one of his last works, written in poor health amidst financial insecurity, it is anything but the simple, tuneful piece that many commentators describe (a notable exception is a talk by the English musicologist Stephen Johnson, which can be heard on the BBC here.) 

Prokofiev in 1952, with the 'cellist Mstislav Rostropovich.
It began life as a piece for Soviet children’s radio, but grew into much more, and the very opening belies any unambiguously benign impression. A single bell-like unison C-sharp on piano, harp, and brass releases the main theme on first violins, an indelibly memorable inspiration that manages to combine both aspiration and a sense of resignation in its wide-spanning arc. Mr. Danzmayr played this quite straight, letting the music speak for itself, as he also did when the second main theme—radiant, almost painfully optimistic—arrived. 

Prokofiev, however, proceeds to undermine this with sharply accented ironies plucked and dotted all over the orchestra, led by high woodwinds, and played here with impeccable point by the PSO. Eventually the radiant second theme reappears in the movement’s recapitulation, but this time Mr. Danzmayr conducted it very slowly, and even quieter than the specified piano dynamic, with the effect of further emphasizing a sense of uncertainty about the work’s direction.

The remaining three movements, each in its different way, embody a subverting or undermining of the initial mood, and in every case Mr. Danzmayr meticulously, almost mercilessly, revealed and emphasized the underlying darkness. In his hands the second movement Allegretto metamorphosed from its relatively benign opening into a sharp-edged nightmare, a waltz as recklessly driven and haunted as Ravel’s La Valse, while the chill that eventually overtakes the slow movement’s initial nostalgic beauty (played much more slowly than the Andante espressivo marking would suggest), was similarly given full weight, with plangent English horn coloring and deep brass chords echoing into the depths.

Prokofiev's grave in
Novodevicij Cemetery, Moscow.
At the conductor’s very fast tempo, the hectic gallop that dominates the first half of the finale had a hysterical tinge, a “bound-to-end-in-tears” quality that gave the eventual return of the first movement’s aspiring second theme an overwhelming emotional impact, accentuated by the dissonances Prokofiev now inserts into its fabric. From this tragic peak the movement winds down through a long ostinato on glockenspiel, xylophone, and piano, punctuated by ominous brass chords—every stroke made to count like faltering heartbeats by the PSO players under Mr. Danzmayr’s baton—to a single final quiet string pizzicato.

Perhaps to clarify the program note’s unfortunately misleading reference to a “vigorous, optimistic resolution”, Mr. Danzmayr had noted in his introductory remarks that this symphony has two endings. It was suggested to Prokofiev by the conductor of the first performance that a more upbeat conclusion would aid the work’s chances in the Soviet climate, and so as an alternative he marked the final pizzicato to be omitted and added a quick build-up of the galloping theme to end with a bang. Amazingly, most early performances of the symphony included it, but this fervently committed account demonstrated conclusively that first thoughts were best, as can be seen and heard from the PSO's blog here.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, January 10, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Chernabog: Courtesy Disney Fandom Wiki; Mussorgsky: Wikimedia Commons; Rimsky-Korsakov: Wikimedia Commons; Gabriela Martinez; Artist website; Chopin: Wikimedia Commons; David Danzmayr: Matt Masin, courtesy Orange County Register; Prokofiev: Wikimedia Commons; Prokofiev's grave: Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Schubert and Saint-Saëns at Rolling Hills

Schubert at the piano, by Gustav Klimt (1899).


Steven Vanhauwaert, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

If the score of Schubert’s penultimate piano sonata had come down to us with no indication of who’d written it, or when, or even whether it was its author’s only work, there could still be no doubt that he or she was one of the greats. Now add in what we do know—that Schubert was still a young man (but already dying of syphilis), that this was just the centerpiece in a trio of mighty sonatas conceived concurrently, and that even these were but three amongst many masterpieces that he produced in what Benjamin Britten called arguably the “richest and most productive 18 months in our music history.”

While requiring consummate pianism to make their full effect, Schubert’s piano sonatas are not virtuoso showpieces per se. Rather, and in particular these last three, they are spacious tonal structures that can be regarded metaphorically as landscapes comprising many kinds of terrain, or as emotional journeys that encompass everything from unbuttoned joy to anger, anguish, and black pits of depression. To embrace all this, and maintain a steady vision of the whole, is no mean challenge for a performer.

Steven Vanhauwaert.
The Belgian-born pianist Steven Vanhauwaert—a frequent and welcome visitor to the RHUMC “Second Sundays at Two” series (indeed he was last there only in November, partnering violinist Varty Manouelian in sonatas by Mozart and Brahms, reviewed here)—not only has the necessary technical chops but also an Olympian ability to take the long view needed for this music, as his splendid account of Schubert’s Piano Sonata No. 20 in A major D.959—the near three-quarter hour piece played entirely from memory—demonstrated.

Despite appearances, this is more
likely to have been a life mask
than a death mask.
Though the first of the sonata's four movements  is extensive, Mr. Vanhauwaert nonetheless observed the all-important exposition repeat, subtly varying his pacing and dynamics the second time around. Here and later, his careful observance of Schubert’s dynamic gradations was a joy, for instance differentiating to just the right degree between fortissimi (ff) and sforzandi (fz).

Many of Schubert’s late slow movements (the Ninth Symphony and Second Piano Trio come particularly to mind) have the overall shape of a calm or contemplative opening that leads to a central crisis and then by degrees back again. What happens in this sonata’s slow movement (deceptively headed Andantino) is the most extreme of them all: “for a few moments it is almost incoherent in its wild intensity,” as the BBC Music Guide says, while for the pianist Mitsuko Uchida it is “the greatest mad scene ever written.” The composer’s despairing rage seems to threaten tonality itself, and defy the ability of his chosen instrument to express it. Mr. Vanhauwaert was as vivid and skilled as any pianist I have heard in the way he stormed up to the edge of the pit, peered into the void, and then drew back slowly to safer ground.

After an incisive account of Schubert’s somewhat spiky Scherzo and brief Trio (no Schubertian “heavenly lengths” here), he gave the expansive Rondo finale all the space that it needs. Perhaps it was the impact of listening to such a fine performance live and with score in hand, but I have never before been so struck by the extent to which this movement’s development section comes quite close to matching that of the slow movement in power, albeit without that almost unhinged intensity. With the final return of the rondo theme, and full value given to the six one-measure rests that punctuate its phrases before the presto conclusion, there was the palpable sense of a long voyage safely brought to harbor. A memorable performance indeed.

Saint-Saëns at the piano, 1908.
Mr. Vanhauwaert topped and tailed his performance of the Schubert sonata with the first two of Saint-Saëns’ three Mazurkas, both in the key of G minor and composed in 1862 and 1871 respectively.

Before playing No. 1, Op. 21 as a bonne bouche to precede the main item, he remarked on how little-played and little-known Saint-Saëns’ solo piano music still is, and affirmed his love and esteem for it with a most affectionate performance, quite languid and with plenty of rubato in its opening and close, and smiling mock-severity for its central section. 

Mazurka No. 2, Op. 24, as encore after a brief chat with RHUMC Music Director Charles Dickerson, proved more dramatic and epigrammatic than its predecessor, punctuated with trills and crisp dotted rhythms, and just a touch of quasi-“oriental” harmony here and there. Maybe these mazurkas are chips off of a master’s workbench, but what a workbench, and what a master! 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Sunday, January 13 2019, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Schubert by Klimt: Wikimedia Commons; Steven Vanhauwaert: artist website; Schubert "death mask": Goethe Society; Saint-Saëns: Interlude.

Shearer's and Stevens' Operatic, American 'Howards End'

Claudia Stevens, Allen Shearer
Photo David Becker

INTERVIEW: Howards End, America 

Z Space, San Francisco 

The much anticipated new opera, Howards End, America, from composer Allen Shearer and librettist Claudia Stevens, the creative team behind 2015's Middlemarch in Spring, will premiere in San Francisco on Feb. 22, 2019. The city’s RealOpera will co-produce with forward-looking chamber music ensemble Earplay. Mary Chun conducts and Philip Lowery directs the cast led by acclaimed singers Nikki Einfeld, Philip Skinner, and Michael Dailey. 

Exploring issues of race equality, love, and betrayal, Howards End, America updates E. M. Forster's famous novel from Edwardian England to McCarthy-era Boston. Shearer and Stevens weigh in on the opera’s compelling themes. 

Erica Miner: Claudia and Allen, congratulations on the upcoming world premiere of your major new chamber opera Howards End, America

Allen Shearer and Claudia Stevens: Thank you, Erica. 

EM: Your opera has been described as “a story of betrayal, race and real estate.” What makes this a characteristically AMERICAN opera in its flavor and meaning? 

Claudia: I come from the Sacramento Valley, but I spent formative years in Boston, where the opera is set—I was in grad school at Boston University (which gets a mention in the opera). Martin Luther King had received his Doctor of Divinity degree there. While I was soaking up the atmosphere, the idealism, the physical places in New England where American history was forged, race hatred was rearing its ugly head in South Boston and school buses carrying black children were being stoned. This made a deep impression. I then made my home for nearly thirty years in Richmond, Virginia—the capital of the Confederacy. Riding the buses there in the 70's I learned about the color barrier, how people still treated one another 120 years after emancipation. So, I came to understand that American attitudes and behaviors often have to do with race—much as British social structure still has to do with class barriers. The flavor of this opera, and part of its meaning, was born out of my varied experience of the nation over decades. But the opera is far more than a polemic about race. It is also a love story about deception and betrayal.

Sara Duchovnay, Michael Dailey
Allen: I would add that our characters seem typically American: the arrogant wealthy industrialist Henry and the radical young activist Helen; the African-American Leonard as a self-made man hoping to break out of his confines. The sheer energy of Leonard's embrace of high culture has a kind of pioneer spirit that we associate with America. And the character of his wife Jacky, a former night-club singer, gave me an opportunity to introduce a jazz element that plays a big role in the opera. 

EM: I look forward to hearing that jazz component, which I think works well in opera. What made you decide to tell this particular story, to adapt the classic E.M. Forster novel to an American setting? 

Claudia: I have always loved Forster. His novels are full of music and musical references, as is Howards End. I love how he tells us that position and wealth create barriers between us and in the end feelings are what matter. I also was drawn to this book by its great charm and wit, its colorful, sympathetic characters and the intensity of the story. And I saw that, by the simple choice of transforming the characters of Leonard and Jacky from working class unfortunates in England, to African-American characters in Boston a whole new dynamic would emerge. I saw pretty quickly that it would make a fantastic opera set a generation or two later right here on our own shores. 

Allen: Opera can transport you anywhere; my first attempt was set in India. My biggest collaborative effort with Claudia, Middlemarch in Spring, adapted another British novel, set in England. Both of us were excited at the prospect of an American Howards End—the idea to put it in Boston was part of the project from the outset. We welcomed the opportunity to create a piece set in the audience’s own country, and in a time that at least some of us remember, the fifties. Our Middlemarch opera has resonated with audiences in three different productions. But still, we wanted Howards End, America to avoid being perceived as a costume drama set in some remote time and place. 

EM: It’s an interesting choice of periods for your two operas. Could you detail the musical and textual choices you’ve made that makes this opera your story? 

Allen: It’s a story I felt prepared to tell without having to do a lot of research. Although it is not my own story, parts of it line up with my own experience—fascination as a teenager with a level of culture far beyond my own; and the racism I saw all around me. The choice to incorporate excerpts from Beethoven comes out of the novel, in which an inspiring lecture about Beethoven sets the plot in motion (though we use Beethoven’s Ninth rather than the Fifth). It is a strong unifying element and symbol in the first half of the opera, and it even makes a parting appearance in the final scene. I also borrow liberally from the jazz repertoire, having Jacky sing jazz standards by Fats Waller and Gershwin as she puts on a display for Leonard in their shabby lodgings. Juxtaposing classical and jazz elements helps to create tension and underscores the social and cultural divide.

Claudia: I can't say that this is my story, although much—I would say most—of the text is original. The opera does come from a deep place for me, and the text was somehow waiting to be written. I was raised in rural America, surrounded by farmers and mill workers who had just served in WWII. I took in their ways of speaking, their attitudes and aspirations, which still typify rural white America. Some of the language and slang spoken by Charles Wilcox and his father mirror that speech and those mannerisms. The more "elevated" language of Helen and Margaret—that of "privilege"—is familiar to me, mostly from extensive reading of the period. I was concerned whether the language spoken by the African-American Jacky and Leonard would come across as authentic, but our performers reassured me that it works and sounds right for their characters.

Philip Skinner
EM: The parallels between the McCarthy era and our troubled contemporary times seem quite evident to most of us. How does the atmosphere of Howards End, America link to the political situation in our country today? 

Claudia: The parallels are painfully obvious: wide disparities between rich and poor, the lack of empathy, the prevalence of greed and selfishness at the highest levels. Add to this, that in our opera the wealthy and greedy Wilcox family is suspicious of the educated, idealistic, art-loving Schlegel sisters, whom they disparage as being "elites," too European, even Communists. This was at a time when the McCarthy witch hunts were targeting social activists—or even just political opponents on the left—for destruction. In today's America one does not have to look beyond tweets and cable news for similar hate-filled speech and threatening messages. 

EM: Social activism is more than ever a huge part of our lives today. How does the interplay between your characters heighten our social and political awareness? 

Claudia: I think we are already pretty aware socially and politically. The opera emphasizes how trying to "do good," without sufficient understanding of the true meaning and extent of racism, can lead to calamity—that's what happens when Helen and Margaret try to improve the life of a black man. I think it underscores the need for real and deep solutions to poverty and discrimination. But it also suggests the possibility for reconciliation and a way forward—both as individuals and as a society. 

EM: How do the scenic design and imagery portray the character arcs and changing face of the house itself? 

Allen: In Claudia’s libretto the character of Helen, the younger Schlegel sister, is an avid photographer. In the fifties, amateur photography became very popular—everyone seemed to have a camera of some sort. Helen uses hers both as an artistic outlet and a means of chronicling the injustices happening around her. Projections will play a large role in this production, and they will include projections of Helen’s photographs. 

Claudia: The use of doorways—where people are allowed to enter and where they are prohibited from entering—will be a recurring symbol, as well as a design element. 

EM: In what ways do your cast choices intensify the impact of the story? 

Allen: Fortunately, a couple of the performers of Middlemarch in Spring—Sara Duchovnay and Philip Skinner—are returning to take leading roles, Helen Schlegel and Henry Wilcox respectively. We know their acting and singing ability, and that of Nikki Einfeld, who will play Margaret Schlegel. The part of Ruth Wilcox will be taken by Erin Neff, who performed in an earlier opera of ours. Leonard and Jacky Bast are played by Michael Dailey and Candace Johnson, both accomplished African-American opera singers. Since the opera is partly about race, casting had to follow racial lines; color-blind casting could not apply here. With this cast I am confident that there will be plenty of synergy to help drive the story home. 

EM: Thank you both for your insights. I’m looking forward to seeing the premiere of Howards End, America in San Francisco!

Michael Dailey, Nikki Enfield

Howards End, America takes place on Feb. 22-24 at Z_Space

Photo credits: David Becker, Jasmine Van T 
Erica can be reached at:

Friday, December 21, 2018

Seattle Opera Celebrates New Civic Home


McCaw Hall, Seattle   

Dec. 15 marked the long-awaited official grand opening for members of the public of Seattle Opera’s brand-new, state-of-the-art rehearsal, storage and administrative building. The company is justifiably proud of the facility, for which they have tirelessly been fundraising over the past several years. Having broken ground after tearing down the former Mercer Arena, which stood on the site, the venue is now ready for use by the opera company.

According to General Director Aidan Lang, with the opening of their new civic home, “Seattle Opera will continue to break down barriers that have previously kept people from being able to participate in opera…In addition to creating an environment for world-class artistry, we are establishing a welcoming and accessible community resource on the Seattle Center campus, inviting visitors to explore our city’s arts and cultural home.” The new facility is located at 363 Mercer Street, directly to the left of McCaw Hall.

Designed by architect NBBJ, the handsome building is striking for its copious amounts of glass, which not only makes the edifice pleasing to the eye but allows passersby an enticing view of the activities taking place in the gleaming ground floor Tagney Jones Hall, a 300+ seat glass-box performance space with full theatrical lighting and very live acoustics, designed for educational and community events. Reclaimed wood from the roof of the Mercer Hockey Arena (built 1928) has been repurposed for terraced seating bleachers in the hall.

Also on street level is a new ADA-accessible box office, the first time the company has had this capability, says Kristina Murti, the Opera’s Director of Marketing and Communications. This will be for advanced sales, Murti added; the Will Call box office will remain in its current position in McCaw Hall.

Of the facility’s 105,000 square feet, 20,000 of which is dedicated to community programming and education, a tour of the facility revealed, in addition to Tagney Jones Hall and the new box office:

•  A viewing garden where the public can look into Seattle Opera’s celebrated costume shop. 
•  Space for storing and prepping 50,000 props.
•  Dedicated space for wig preparation and creation—a first in the company’s history.
•  Three multi-purpose studios. The largest of these is the same size as McCaw Hall’s stage and enables casts to rehearse on the scenery which will appear onstage; the other two studios can be used for rehearsals, community programs, youth operas, events, and more.
•   Original trees on 4th Avenue on the east side of the building that were planted for the 1962 Seattle Worlds’ Fair, then retained and nurtured throughout construction.
•   A rain garden that uses storm water runoff in an Earth-friendly way.

Attendees of the grand opening event were able to observe musical performances by Seattle Opera’s Chorus and Teen Vocal Studio as well as members of the Seattle Symphony, and a rehearsal of the company’s upcoming production Il Trovatore. They were also able to learn more about the history of Seattle Opera, as well as Opera Production 101 in a fun, informative talk from Dramaturg Jonathan Dean.

A group of lucky attendees participated in a Seattle Opera Sing-Along with some of Verdi's most popular choruses, and enjoyed a Costume Presentation with Costume Director Susan Davis. They were also invited to check out the space via self-guided tour.

One of the most impressive areas on view was the Costume Shop. Visible through large windows on the street level, allowing for a birds’ eye perspective of the many busy bees at work at the sewing machines, cutting tables and irons, the below level area profits from the high ceilings and natural light emanating through immense street-level windows.

The amount of storage for costumes and accessories was equally remarkable: rack upon rack of costumes, with countless others waiting to be filled, and space for thousands of pairs of shoes, which, for operas with large numbers of chorus members, is an absolute necessity. Equally impressive was the dedicated wig studio with more than 100 wigs.

Included among the rehearsal suites are coaching rooms decorated with colorful opera posters, chorus and dance rehearsal rooms, generous numbers of much-needed lounge space for employees to take breaks from their exhaustive work.

The spacious Speight Jenkins rehearsal hall has 40-foot ceilings and enough square footage for a raked rehearsal stage. At the time of this viewing, Maestro Carlo Montanaro was rehearsing two of the cast members of Il Trovatore, soprano Angela Meade and tenor Martin Muehle (both of whom sounded fantastic).

Also on view were the artists’ Green Room and offices for stage manager and production staff, as well as the General Director’s office, which was custom built to his specifications. Significantly, most of the offices have views to the exterior, and many have stunning views of Seattle’s iconic Space Needle.

Extra care has been put into such details as the special tapestry hanging in the central hallway, which was extracted from the colorful curtain used in Seattle Opera’s famous “Green” production of Wagner’s Ring.

The word impressive doesn’t begin to describe the immense amount of work that went into the conception, planning and executing of the opera’s stunning new facility.

Having served the people of the Pacific Northwest and the communities of its city with the highest level of performances, Seattle Opera is now entering an whole new era of achievement with their new home. There is absolutely no doubt that they will fulfill the facility’s potential to its maximum.


Photo credits: Sean Airhart

Erica can be reached at: