Thursday, October 17, 2019

Beethoven, Falla, and Ravel at Rolling Hills

Valeria Morgovskaya (piano) and Ken Aiso (violin), at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.


Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

I don’t know if including the Sonata Per Piano-Forte con L’Accompagnam’t Del Violono Op. 30 Nr. 3 (cf the surviving manuscript, right, probably a copyist’s score), as the opener to their Sunday afternoon recital at RHUMC, was a deliberate tribute by Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya to Beethoven in the ongoing 250th anniversary celebration juggernaut, but if so, it was a cannily subtle and intriguing choice.

That way of titling a violin sonata—with the violin secondary to the piano—runs all the way through to Beethoven’s last, written in 1812, but even in Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, composed some 10 years earlier, the instruments had already achieved parity. Both lead off in unison with an abrupt little inverted arch motif played twice, part-gruff and part-playful, after which Beethoven tosses his genial melodies back and forth between them—in these performers’ hands not a catch being dropped. Repeating the exposition also helped to get those melodies fixed in the mind.

The second movement is headed Tempo di Minuetto, but Beethoven’s careful modifier, ma molto moderato e grazioso, defines this as a slow movement and not a scherzo precursor. Its remarkable evenness of mood could lapse into monotony were not the main melody so insidiously ingratiating, Beethoven artfully tweaking its progress in a quasi-variation manner. Mr. Aiso and Ms. Morgovskaya kept the movement moving and indeed, I felt, could have allowed it to smile a little more without becoming unduly sentimental.

The brief finale is a prime example of the young(ish) Beethoven’s insouciant brilliance and economy, swinging back and forth between uproarious repetitions of its main theme and little spasms of mock anger. Again, Mr. Aiso and Ms. Morgovskaya kept the textures cleanly alive without being unduly helter-skelter.

Manuel de Falla in Paris, c. 1914.
Manuel de Falla’s 1914 Siete Canciones populares Españolas for voice and piano are much recorded, but the Suite Populaire Espagnole that he and the violinist Paul Kochanskí reworked from them in 1926 seems rather less well-known. As the performance of this that was the duo’s next item showed, this is a pity; its movements work equally well on the violin as sung, especially when as characterfully varied as Mr. Aiso played them.

The first song, El paño moruno, retains its location in the violin version, but the second is omitted (one wonders why?) and the remaining five ordered differently. The original fifth song, Nana, comes next, and after the opener’s jaunty brilliance (with pizzicati over the piano introduction immediately demonstrating that the reworking is more extensive than simply transferring the sung line to the violin over the unchanged accompaniment), Mr. Aiso played it with a haunted, almost theremin-like tone.

In succession Canción (VI in the original), Polo (VII), Asturiana (III), and Jota (IV) were variously passionate, glassily ethereal, earthy, muted, wild, strummed… with Ms. Morgovskaya’s piano in each case conjuring within a few measures the differing colors and rhythms of the Spanish regions whence the songs originated. In all, their performance of the Suite Populaire Espagnole broadened their expressive range from that appropriate to Beethoven’s early(ish) sonata, and this expansion reached its zenith in their account of Ravel’s dazzling Tzigane, composed 1922-24.

Maurice Ravel, c. 1925.
This piece is a kind of apotheosis of the idea of “gypsy music”—somewhat as La Valse is of the Viennese waltz—but its success or failure in performance lies wholly with the violinist, who in both the original version with piano and in its later orchestration has the stage to himself for almost half the 10-minute duration.

Mr. Aiso bit decisively into the opening Lento, quasi cadenza, and then from that elemental substratum fully projected the music’s meditations, broodings, and—once joined by the piano—its progressive opening out into a rhythmic, rhapsodic, and ultimately kaleidoscopic wildness.

After this tour de force, acclaimed by the RHUMC audience, it was back to Spain for the encore, though filtered through Ravel's sensibilities in his 1907 Pièce en forme de Habanera (as with the Falla, arranged from a vocal original), the sultriness of whose violin line is underpinned by a persistent octave leap touched in on the piano that, for me, always echoes Bernard Herrmann’s musical embodiment of Hitchcock’s dream-like vision in Vertigo.


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, October 13, 2019, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performers: Linda Pelteson Wehrli; Beethoven manuscript: IMSLP; Falla: Composer website; Ravel: Wikimedia Commons.

Thursday, October 10, 2019

Sublime Mozart and Brahms End Mount Wilson Season

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Virginie d'Avezac, Henry Gronnier, Cécilia Tsan, Pierre Génisson.


Clarinet Quintets: Mount Wilson Observatory

I suppose one could be hyper-picky and say that opting for the Mozart and the Brahms to fill the clarinet quintet recital that brought Mount Wilson Observatory’s third season of Sunday afternoon “Concerts in the Dome” to a close was to choose the most obvious in the genre—the two lushest and lowest-hanging fruit. After all, there are plenty of other clarinet quintets, some of them extremely fine—those by Weber and Bliss, for example, to look no further.

But then, why not go for the “best and brightest”? Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major K. 581 and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op. 115 are masterpieces of sublimity that resist being easily pigeon-holed, and the performances by the series Artistic Director Cécilia Tsan (cello) and her fellow-French colleagues Pierre Génisson (clarinet), Ambroise Aubrun and Henry Gronnier (violins), and Virginie d’Avezac (viola) were of such insight as to render reductionist labels like “autumnal” or “valedictory” entirely inadequate.

Sometimes the very start of a performance clearly indicates what is to come. So it was with the Mozart. The four strings (with M. Gronnier as 1st violin and M. Aubrun as 2nd) introduced the principal subject with arresting tenderness and unanimity—their tempo on the steady side but well within the bounds of the marked Allegro, given the note-values—and then M. Génisson’s clarinet bubbled up from, and tumbled lightly back into, their texture with seemingly effortless breath control and a perfect matching of the piano dynamic that they had scrupulously observed.

When they came to the exposition repeat (yes, it was there!), the transition was beautifully handled, with a strong sense of finality in the clarinet’s downward plunge, the final three chords well spaced, and the quarter note rest generously observed before the return—which was a vital touch bolder in its expression, as if something had been learned by experience.

Posthumous portrait of Mozart
by Barbara Krafft.
The Larghetto had a nocturnal gravity, from M. Génisson’s initial perfect arch of melody over muted string oscillations that sounded more like a susurration of nature than something man-made, while in the Scherzo, his lead-in to the repeat of Trio II had a wonderfully teasing, hesitant quality, in contrast to the artless directness with which it had been played first time around. Equally imaginative was the strings’ softer revisiting, in their repeat, of Trio I, where the clarinet is silent.

As for the finale, after an impudently buoyant statement of the main theme, the first four variations were variously vigorous, poignant (Ms. d’Avezac’s viola having its—albeit clouded—moment in the sun in Variation 3), and burblingly cheerful, unfolding with airborne spontaneity and a seeming insouciance that masked what must have been meticulous preparation; the ensuing Adagio had all the requisite “in memory of a summer day” feel, but it did not overbalance into a nostalgic wallow as sometimes happens, so that Mozart's final dance to the finish-line didn't feel glib or incongruous.

Splendid though this performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet was, however, the group’s account of the Brahms was arguably even finer. One now sadly departed authority on the composer—the Scot Malcolm MacDonald in his life-and-works volume—expressed some reservations about Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet on account of how a certain lack of textural contrast can easily enable performances to fall into an “over-indulged pathos, dangerously near to sentimentality.” I wish he could have heard this performance. 

Particularly in the first movement, those textures seemed anything but homogeneous, the mood passionately assertive rather than benign. Instrumental colors were boldly delineated, with M. Aubrun, now in the 1st violin seat, seizing the opportunity to make the expressive most of his assumption of Brahms’ memorably sinuous melodic line. Later in the exposition, M. Génisson made something very special of the dolce moment when the clarinet plays isolated dotted notes against a rocking motion in the strings—in his hands like tiny, discrete dabs of color on a pointillist canvas.

Following the exposition repeat (which as with the Mozart was welcome, of course, but completely blew away any chance of these two works squeezing within the nominal hour’s duration for the recital), the development was stormy, and then the recapitulation positively torrential, Brahms in 1891—and within a half-dozen years of the end of his life—not so much engaged in nostalgic reflection as “raging against the dying of the light.” 

Triplex Portrait of Brahms in 1889, two years before he composed the Clarinet Quintet.

The opening span of the Adagio was rapturously beautiful, with M. Génisson’s clarinet keening softly over the muted dolce strings, and when at the start of the second, Più lento, section, he broke away into its elaborate roulades above the strings now imitative, now musing, he didn't over-dramatize the moment, instead allowing the tension to cumulate until his climactic moment sounded like a scream of pain, twisting and turning in the night.

The brief Andantino that Brahms substitutes for the more usual scherzo had a rather business-like air, with the Presto non assai that does duty as a trio (though with no recap of the opening) seething busily along. Then the Con moto finale, comprising a theme, five extensive variations, and a coda, was of such range and coherent power that nothing less than the last movement of the Fourth Symphony came to mind. The “all passion spent” coda, with its mournful recalling of the first movement’s main theme, embodied heart-rending resignation without a scrap of excess sentimentality.

In both works, the group played with a unanimity that sounded as if they had many years of collaborative chamber music performance behind them, rather than being brought together just for this occasion. It’s probably invidious to single anyone out, but on this concert’s evidence, M. Génisson is surely one of the finest clarinetists on the planet. His many passages of rapid articulation and leaps in both works had unfailing smoothness and clarity, more like a natural force than the painstaking work of fingers and embouchure, and evinced total control, whether projecting his tone with supernal intensity or as a beneficent murmur.

I doubt that better performances, particularly of the Brahms, could be heard in any recital hall in the world, however prestigious—not in Vienna, or London, or New York—and here they were enhanced, of course, by the unique combination of plangent grandeur and inner clarity afforded by the 100-inch telescope Dome’s acoustic. As Mount Wilson Trustee Dan Kohne remarked before the start, they were continuing to experiment with layout. Instead of having the performers against the inner edge of the viewing platform as previously, with the audience faced towards the telescope in the center, this time positions were reversed, with the group on a platform against the Dome wall. To me, there wasn’t much in it soundwise, though maybe this arrangement allows for a few more audience seats.

Since the Sunday afternoon “Concerts in the Dome” began in 2017, Cécilia Tsan as Artistic Director has repeatedly set herself high bars to beat in terms of sheer performance quality, and this recital arguably was the most formidable hurdle yet for future events to surpass. We wait with great anticipation to see what her 2020 season brings. 


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 6 October 2019, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: The performers: Todd Mason; Mozart: Wikimedia Commons; Brahms: 19thcentury photography.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Mendelssohnian Fire on a Friday

Members of The Los Angeles Ensemble: l-r Feng Bian, Joanna Lee, Bingxia Lu.


Los Angeles Ensemble, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Piano trios are the genre of the season so far in Classical Crossroads’ “First Friday” lunchtime recitals. Last month Tchaikovsky’s sprawling epic in A minor (reviewed here) needed a little surgery to fit into the given timeframe, but the October concert had plenty of space for Mendelssohn’s much more concise Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor Op. 66 MWV Q33, played by The Los Angeles Ensemble. This group frequently performs at South Bay chamber concerts, though on this occasion violinist Joanna Lee and cellist Bingxia Lu were joined for the first time by a new LA Ensemble member, the pianist Feng Bian.

Movements in Mendelssohn’s chamber works are often directed to be performed with great energy and speed, but it’s rare for him to crank it up a further notch and mark one to be played—as he does with this work’s Allegro energico first movement—e con fuoco. Fire is not the first attribute that comes to mind with this composer, so it was salutary to be reminded that on occasion there could be plenty in his belly. Right at the outset Mr. Bian grasped it with both hands, as it were, making his introductory arpeggios quite staccato, a nimbly urgent texture out of which the two strings emerged and surged as one.

Felix Mendelssohn, painted by Eduard Magnus
 in 1846, the year after he completed
Second Piano Trio. 
Ms. Lee and Ms. Lu took the foreboding main theme in a single eloquent sweep, but when they reached the warm major-key second subject their unmarked slowing contrived to give it a greater gravitas than it sometimes has, so that the melody seemed to partake more of the overall serious mood than the somewhat glibly reassuring effect it can have if taken up to speed.

The Ensemble maintained this sense of breadth and weight throughout the movement (allowing one to relish in passing how Mendelssohn varies his scoring in the recapitulation), and built up a terrific head of steam in the coda, crunching out the dissonance with which Mendelssohn masterfully reintroduces his second theme... but in the minor—con fuoco indeed.

The Andante espressivo that follows is in the greatest contrast, with a gently rocking, barcarolle-like quality that the LA Ensemble kept very much moving forward so that it seemed like a relatively brief interlude rather than a full-fledged slow movement. Similarly interlude-like is the Scherzo, which flickered and buzzed immaculately in these players’ hands like a small-scale fugitive from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though the Finale is marked Allegro appassionato, it has little of the fire-and-fury that binds the first movement, as though that had got out of the way all the work's real disturbance, leaving only a purposeful energy to chug along. In a usefully specific spoken introduction, Mr. Bian had noted that in this Finale Mendelssohn introduces a Bach chorale, Vor deinen Thron. Even in such a skillful performance, to my ears this veered to the sanctimonious (a reminder of why Mendelssohn was so revered in pious Victorian society), though Mr. Bian hammered out its final grandiose appearance with an urgency that tied it back to that con fuoco opening. 

Piazzolla in 1982, the year he composed Oblivion.
After this intelligently conceived and immaculately played account of the Second Piano Trio, it was encore time. For this, Astor Piazzolla seems be the go-to guy of the moment, and his familiar Oblivion, composed in 1982 for the movie Enrico IV, came across in this arrangement for piano trio (the piece exists in seemingly countless guises) as poised rather than sultry, with Ms. Lu delivering a particularly eloquent and soulful cello solo. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, October 4, 2019. Images: The players: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc.; Mendelssohn: Wikimedia Commons; Piazzolla: New York Latin Culture Magazine.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ginger Costa-Jackson, Part 2: Mopping, not Moping

Sunny Martini

INTERVIEW: Ginger Costa-Jackson
McCaw Hall, Seattle


EM: You sang in the 2010 Centennial of Fanciulla at the Met.

GC-J: It was very fun, and funny for me, a 21-year-old Wowkle having a papoose baby on my back. It was the same baby doll they used in the one with Plácido (1991), terribly old, a little on the scary side.

EM: A vintage doll.

GC-J: They had to paint her up and do the hair and everything, so by the time we got to stage it was good looking again. Debbie Voigt has this fantastic, very quick change. I’ll never forget one night her zipper got stuck. The dresser was backstage with her, I’m out front and I know she’s supposed to come out but she hadn’t yet, so I’m still tapping the papoose, trying to look “Doo-da-doo” [Laughs]. Suddenly I hear [makes a “rip” sound]. They had to rip the dress off her. she only missed one little line, but…it’s live theatre, and that wasn’t for the HD but it happens, because you have these very quick changes.

EM: It makes it even more memorable.

GC-J: Exactly.

EM: You’re just back from Spain.

GC-J: Donna Elvira, my first Don Giovanni. Before that, La Belle Hélène in Boston. Before that, San Francisco Symphony, L’enfant et les sortilèges, then I was in Carmen here. So since I was last here I’ve had 3 jobs one right after the other, 1 red eye flight to get to the next rehearsal.

EM: And you’re doing Cherubino.

GC-J: Yes, La Monnaie in Brussels, a Mozart trilogy. They’re doing The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni all together. I’ll be performing Cherubino and Dorabella. Each singer has 2 roles. In the opera they’re not singing, they appear as their character. The concept is to marry all of these operas. For example, Donna Anna—I assume, since I haven’t begun rehearsals yet—when she finds her father dead, she says, [Sings] “Io manco, Io moro.” That’s what Fiordiligi and Dorabella say—they split the 2 lines right before their fiancés are going off to war. [Sings] “Bella vita militar.” A lot of ideas. The same composer, Da Ponte’s stories. I think they’re going to weave the stories into a through-line. The performances are back to back, so one night I’ll have to prance around like a boy, then have to shake it off and the next night be a girl [Laughs].

EM: But how wonderful to be steeped in Mozart.

GC-J: I know. It’s funny, I’ll do four months of these three operas. Then I’ll come here and do Musetta in la bohème, then fly to Paris and do Despina, the servant, not Dorabella. Then I can’t say where but I think I’m going to do another Dorabella/ Cherubino. So it will be a year where I’m only doing Mozart, but I love Mozart.

EM: Musetta. Interesting bit of casting. You’re able to cross over from very low to high and in between.

GC-J: I just love a challenge. Maybe I’ve just got gumption. I find it interesting with Musetta [Sings] “Ma ti senti morir,” at the end of the aria, that it’s the same as when Rosina in Barber says, “Se Lindo-o-o-o-ro mio sarà…” So this high B is the same note Rossini singers are constantly going to. I do have those notes on the top. But Musetta is a very sensual woman. When you get to the next act where she’s fighting, she has some very low notes, like, “Ti saluto.” It’s very low. When Mimi is dying, that little prayer, [Sings] “Fate la grazia a questa benedetta…” it has this low feeling. The aria does go high at this one point, but the next two are not high at all. Conchita Supervia, who was a mezzo, one of the original Cenerentolas—

EM: She was in a British film directed by Victor Saville.

GC-J: About Nellie Melba. These singers of the past. I listen to so many of these old recordings, they had the tradition, they could be onstage with people who had been with the source, who had worked with the composer and knew what they wanted. I think every young singer should be listening to these singers. Nowadays you can listen too, but it’s more important to listen to people from the past.

Sunny Martini.
EM: Amazing, to think of being the first to sing Donna Elvira.

GC-J: Fascinating. There’s a recording of Bruna Rasa doing Cavalleria Rusticana with Mascagni—the composer—conducting. I had the opportunity to work on Nixon in China with John Adams. To have the composer be the conductor, you know what he wants [Laughs].

EM: Like The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs with Mason Bates. Is there any role that you’ve done or haven’t done that’s your favorite?

GC-J: It’s like asking you what’s your favorite violin solo. I love everything I get into. Rehearsing Cenerentola has been interesting. I’ve obviously learned the music before coming here. I’ve listened to it a lot. It touches my heart, it speaks to me. Cenerentola and Cherubino have special places musically for me. I love these roles. Of course I love Carmen too. But Cenerentola is interesting because acting her there have been a couple times where I’ve felt like crying. This music makes me emotional. Carmen is fascinating because she’s put a wall up, doesn’t allow people to hurt her. There’s only one point where she opens her heart to Don José and says, [Sings] “Là-bas, là-bas dans la montagne…” If you love me you’re going to take me on your horse and gallop away with me and be the person who maybe can love me. And when he says, [Sings] “No, je ne veux plus t’écouter,” that dream is shut before her eyes. She closes her heart and says, “Fine. I don’t care. Leave. I hate you. Take your crap. ‘Bye.” Boom, it’s done. But Cinderella has such an open heart, she is not a pushover. She’s mopping the stage, but not moping while she’s mopping. Every time her sisters hurt her, she doesn’t sit there and cry. She’s strong, resilient. She thinks, “Well, okay, what am I gonna do. Let me get busy, let me clean.”

EM: That’s an interesting perspective.

GC-J: She does the things she has control of in her environment. But other times—“Must I always be in the cinders, am I always going to be, [Sings] “Sempre fra le cenere, sempre da restar…” Am I always going to be covered in soot and unloved. All she wants is a sense of family, a sense of belonging. I have a moment with Miriam where I say, “Listen to me, sisters.” Miriam goes, [Gasps] “How dare you call us your sisters. Don’t profane to call us that awful name!” It’s hilarious, because obviously she’s my blood sister [Laughs]. And Miriam is such a ham, super funny. This is not a drama. Obviously Cinderella has some drama in her life, there’s abuse happening. But the sisters and father are hilarious, completely funny and out there, which you have to be, otherwise it’s going to be an Oliver Twist story, very sad. This is a comedy and people will laugh. You’re going to feel bad for Cinderella, but you’re going to laugh.

EM: We call it “dramedy.”

GC-J: [Laughs] It is. Miriam has always been the class clown. She’s the baby of the family, the jokester, maybe not so serious or studious. I’m the one who’s, “Hey, we need…” Of course now she’s older and has her own children, so she’s learned how to be responsible.

EM: What a wonderful relationship. You love to see people onstage ham it up in Rossini comedies. Which sister is singing here in Onegin?

GC-J: Marina. She’ll be coming for the Sisters concert. We’re going to do opera, musical theatre, the [Sings] “Sisters, Sisters.”

EM: Like the Three Tenors.

GC-J: Yes, except with shiny dresses [Laughs]. I love being onstage with my sisters. We have a 6th sense about each other, understand each other, love and support each other. I’ve had the opportunity to share the stage with sisters playing my sisters here in Seattle. Last summer I played Musetta to Marina’s Mimi.

EM: The end must have been heart-wrenching.

GC-J: It’s a very different ending. Of course I always cry at the end when Mimi is dying because it’s such a beautifully written scene. But when you see your own sister on her deathbed, the idea of being so close to death…I’m caressing her head, trying to get the hair out of her face, tucking her in. I had to refrain, really push back out of my own imagination because I still have to sing the final prayer. After the prayer the floods can come forth and release and I cry hysterically—as it should be because Mimi was such a good person. I did a Carmen with Miriam where she was my Micaela. That’s a different thing. There’s only one confrontation in Act 3 for them to look at each other. She comes in to save Don José, little knowing he’s the problem. We only ever have glances. I’ll never forget the look she gave me. “You woman who took this man away…I’m a strong girl, I can confront you.” She sees him battering me, pulling my hair. I always find a moment to look over at Micaela and say with my eyes, “Look at what he is.” Everyone always says Carmen has stolen him from Micaela. I say Carmen has saved Micaela. If he’s the kind of man who when he doesn’t get what he wants he hits a woman, he would have hit his own wife. Because Micaela’s a good girl, she might have lived and suppressed her words. Or if not, she would have had to stay married.

Philip Newton
EM: As an artist, do you do what inspires you?

GC-J: Absolutely. It’s like we’re water. You put us in a cup, we form to the cup. You put us in a bowl, we form to the bowl. You look for perfection, truth. It’s this ever-driving force in your life. Our cells and mood and hormones are constantly changing. Every day we feel things differently. One day I might feel a scene sad or happy based on how that day is. As an actress you can’t train your emotions. You have to allow that you’re going to be an open, receptive vessel to whatever emotions want to come in that moment, without judgment. You’re allowed to sing through that emotion for that night. If you don’t, if you think, “Well, that’s not what I should be doing. I should be delivering this sad.” If you try to impose that upon yourself, you will lose the audience, and the scene.

EM: Having played the violin, what kind of music did you like to play best?

GC-J: All the fast bits [Sings]. More like Spanish style, things I can really bite the bow in. I love these Boleros. As opposed to soft. Marina played cello. She liked that low, sad music. She’s doing all this Onegin, Pique Dame, Vissi d’arte. These women who are very sad. I think that’s why I love Rossini so much, it’s very active. There’s something about the pitter patter you can just feel in your tongue. Like the flamenco of Carmen, my castanets. I like to express myself through my body in a way that physicalizes, very rhythmic and dotted. Musetta is that. Full of fire. Miriam wanted to play flute. She has those super extreme highs. So we’re mezzo, spinto soprano and high coloratura. We all have a different sensibility. Raised with the same family we have the same language. What I love about singing with my sister is I know my “Ah” vowel will be the same as hers. If we’re singing in thirds it will create overtones. When you’re with someone different, sometimes they have a different vowel sound. Even that slight difference creates a blend isn’t as beautiful as it can be. As the bottom voice if I hear someone having more of an “Ah” sometimes I’ll try for the sake of the performance to make it a little brighter myself so it can blend. But what’s good with my sisters is we’re going to pronounce the same way. That’s already set.

EM: All in the family.

GC-J: Yes!

EM: Thank you so much, Ginger, for your wonderful insights. I’m delighted.

GC-J: I’m delighted, too!

Philip Newton

Seattle Opera’s Cinderella runs from Oct. 19-Nov.1


Photo credits: Sunny Martini, Philip Newton
Erica can be reached at:

Ginger Costa-Jackson to Charm Seattle Once Again

Piper Artist Management.

INTERVIEW: Ginger Costa-Jackson
McCaw Hall, Seattle


Rhyming “Ginger” with ”Singer” may be a stretch, but in Ginger Costa-Jackson’s case, it might well be appropriate. The Italian-American operatic mezzo-soprano has performed worldwide, most notably at the Metropolitan Opera after participating in the company’s prestigious Lindemann Young Artist Development Program. A veteran of many international singing competitions and festivals, Costa-Jackson has been featured on The Met: Live in HD broadcasts. 

She is also an absolute spitfire, full of spunk and spirit. Born in Palermo, Italy, the multi-talented Costa-Jackson (singing, acting, dancing, violin) is part of a singing family—from her father, mother and maternal grandmother to her sisters Marina and Miriam. Having heated up the stage in the title role of Seattle Opera’s recent Carmen, Costa-Jackson is sure to charm Seattle audiences once again when she performs the title role in Rossini’s “Cinderella” this month. In addition, she will sing Musetta in Puccini’s La bohème, and in Seattle’s special presentation Three Singing Sisters with Marina and Miriam. 

Erica Miner: Welcome back to Seattle! Wow, what a change—from the ultimate anti-heroine to the ultimate angel of goodness. 

Ginger Costa-Jackson: I was thinking about the juxtaposition from Carmen to Cinderella. Obviously very different takes. The commonality is how they choose to deal with their inner pain and childhood scars. Cinderella deals with her childhood abuse and lack of childhood in goodness and forgiveness. Carmen becomes hardened and numbed by the abuse she’s received. I won’t say selfish, but self-preserving vs Cinderella who stays altruistic throughout her suffering.

Sunny Martini
EM: The focus is on what she’s like on the inside vs how she behaves on the outside. 

GC-J: Absolutely. What’s cool about this production is the stepfather is an alcoholic [Laughs]. You’re not going to see anything dark—it’s still very much a family friendly show—it’s more the comedy side. He gets up with this raging headache, and the two girls have to get him a gin. “Dad’s up, we’ll get him his morning drink.” So we see he isn’t the kindest to his own daughters. That’s why my stepsisters in turn are not kind to me. 

EM: So he’s not so much the buffoon? 

GC-J: He is, but he was once a somebody in the world and now he’s a fallen man. In this production he has an emporium where he sells all sorts of things that are the final sale, one step above poverty line. For the girls, when the beggar comes in, their fear is because it’s so close to what they could be—on the street. Their house is almost in ruins. The father, to cope, takes to drink. He’s also a widower, so he has his own pain. He lost a woman he was very much in love with. For whatever reason, he can’t bear the sight of me, probably because I resemble my mother, I’m good like her. It shows him a mirror of himself. When he sees me it’s like, “I’m not living the life I should be living.” He doesn’t want to look introspectively at the wrong he’s doing. It becomes too much for him. So it’s, “I don’t want to see you, I don’t want to look at you, you aren’t my daughter. Clean the floors.” [Laughs] 

EM: Let’s talk about your stepsisters, one of whom is your actual sister. I know you’ve been asked this many times, but what is it like to perform together as sisters—doubly in “Cinderella”—as you did in Seattle’s Così fan tutte

GC-J: My sisters and I are very close—in age also, just one year behind the other. Marina and I actually have one month we’re the same age, 11 months apart. When we were raised, we all shared the same bedroom. We grew up playing make-believe together. I’d always play the boy. We’d go into my mother’s linen closet and—

EM: Always the boy. Interesting. 

GC-J: Isn’t it? I was the eldest and took on the responsibility—if we had to do our ballroom dancing routine I was the man and I’d lift Miriam [Laughs]. We’ve always played and sung together. Being adults and still being able to play in this world of make-believe is an incredible privilege. I’m very grateful to Seattle Opera to give me the opportunity to work with my siblings. When I’m working with my sisters, there’s this sixth sense. I know when they’re going to change their notes. When I have a new colleague I really need to look into their eyes; if I’m a 3rd underneath them and harmonizing—how can I accompany them. As the bottom voice I always feel that’s my duty—it’s so much harder to sing the high notes—to be the person underneath, to make sure everything stays together. As the older sister I felt that.

EM: I’ve known a number of singers who’ve played violin as you do. Most of them say it enhances their singing. Do you agree? 

GC-J: I once heard the violin was the closest to the human voice—the sense of vibrato. So yes. I played the violin growing up and gave it up only because we couldn’t afford violin and voice lessons. But the best thing about playing an instrument, whether violin, viola or cello, is learning to listen to the people around you when you’re in an orchestra. We opera singers spend a lot of time rehearsing by ourselves. When we come together to do a play, it’s teamwork. You have to be independent knowing what you’re doing, but you need to be flexible enough that if your colleague delivers a line with more sweetness or bitterness, you can accompany or respond to that. when your partner says, “Hello,” you sing [Sings] “Hello back.” Or if you hear they’re singing piano, to try to be with them. You have to act through the voice, to be very much aware what your colleagues are doing. There’s a sense of teamwork that being in an orchestra or band or a sport, it’s very important for an opera singer to bring that to the stage.

EM: You’re so multifaceted. You went for a degree in English literature. What made you decide on voice? 

GC-J: I don’t know. Sometimes you wonder, “How did I get in this career?” [Laughs] I began singing because of Miriam. It’s wonderful to share the stage with her because she originally was the one who wanted voice lessons, always was listening to opera. My mother was Italian, so of course she played opera in the home. But Miriam took it to another level. She would close herself in her room and listen to Callas and Pavarotti. She would cry listening to the CDs—as a 10-year-old! We all thought she was crazy. At 12 she was singing. I heard her sing high notes and remember thinking to myself, “That sounds like flying.” From there I thought, “I want to do this.” I was just the older, very studious sister, more interested in school. When I saw her ability it inspired me to want to try that. It’s like, when you have a sibling, “Oh, I can do that too.” I would go to her voice lessons and asked my mother if I could have voice lessons as well. She was like, [Italian accent] “You know, Ginger, the Lord, he has given you so many talents. I don’t know if singing is one of them.” [Laughs] It’s not like I had a great instrument. I was listening to, [sings in Pop voice] “I can show you the world.” It wasn’t necessarily very good. But it’s about the perspiration, working to achieve something. If you have the desire, really have it in your heart that that’s what you want, you will have to drive to have it. Miriam had all this ability from the get-go. I really didn’t.

EM: You had to work at it.

GC-J: Very hard.

Sunny Martini
EM: Sometimes your passion is even stronger than if you didn’t have to work so hard.

GC-J: You just require a lot more focus. Anything that’s worth having isn’t going to come easily. 

EM: You’ve sung Carmen, Cinderella, Rosina, but also less frequently done roles, like the Marchesa di Poggio in Un Giorno di regno and El Gato. How does it feel to sing those compared to more familiar roles?

GC-J: When it’s something that’s not as much done, you listen to it, and decide from there. When I’m making my decisions, if I have time in my schedule…I’m a workhorse, one of those crazy people who live to be onstage. I want to be onstage. I’m biting at the bit.

EM: Like Olive Fremstad. She practically died when she wasn’t onstage.

GC-J: [Laughs]. This year I think I see my home like two weeks. But I had so many interesting roles offered back to back. Sometimes you need to make the choice to take a couple months off to be a human, not worry about anything like makeup, to eat as much as you want, or just be with your loved ones. But I got offered Donna Elvira, Helen of Troy, super fun. I love these acting singing roles, are very interesting.

EM: Drama, or comedy you can sink your teeth into.

GC-J: Exactly. I told my husband, “Maybe I don’t take it, I can stay home with you.” He looked at me like, “I know you. one or two weeks in, you’re suddenly going to be like, [mock crying] “I don’t know what to do.” I have all this creative energy. Do I know where to put it? It’s like a cow that’s not milked! [Laughs] The difference between being in the rehearsal room, with the people behind the table making sure the movements are right—the director, the conductor—then you get onstage and suddenly there’s this heightened state of awareness, all the eyes looking at you. The audience has this ocean of energy, it changes your performance from one night to the next. If it’s a matinee crowd sometimes they’re still waking up [Laughs]. They’re enjoying what they’re seeing but they’re less vocal, easing into it, not in that zone with you right away. By the end of the matinee they’re with you. The Friday night crowd are super energetic, happy, they know it’s the weekend. We love a boisterous crowd. We want them to clap, to laugh.

Philip Newton
EM: Their energy feeds your energy.

GC-J: And when we don’t get fed as artists, we—[Laughs]

EM: It can be frightening but also delicious. Wonderful, terrible, everything in between.

GC-J: Yes! [Laughs]

EM: Tell me about being with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson in the 2008 opening night Gala, then making your debut in Thaïs.

GC-J: My first experience onstage singing and acting was with Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson in HD broadcast! I was a 21-year-old who came from the Young Artists program. It was my first time on the Met stage. My first legitimate paid job as a singer. I had left home when I was 16 to attend the Music Conservatory in Italy, doing my schooling through correspondence. I never had those performances you do as a student. I’m really grateful, because the opening night Gala originally I played Rosette (Manon)—one of the 3 girls—the “Supremes.” We were supposed to have a trio. But because Renée Fleming was doing 3 scenes, it was going overtime and they cut the trio. So my opening night, the very first thing I only had a one-liner. The older guy comes to bother the girls and says, [French accent] “Oh, hello, good morning, Rosette.” And I go, “Ah! No!” That was it. My first thing. I had a splendid outfit. We did all the dancing and movement and staging. But I had this incredible opportunity to be onstage—I’ll never forget looking out and seeing the enormity and beauty of the stage—and this lavish set behind me with everyone in white powdered wigs. I think I wore the biggest hat ever on the Met stage. I didn’t have to be nervous. All I had to say was, “Ah, no!” The second time I actually got to sing—with Alyson Cambridge. We were the 2 slaves in Thaïs. I had some solo lines, but we sing together. It was a beautiful transition for a 21-year-old to go from “Ah, no!” to get used to the shock of how big the stage is, then singing with a partner, to right after that sing Lola in Cavalleria Rusticana all by myself. It became a beautiful year-long transition for me, just an easy one.

EM: Still a trial by fire to go right onto the Met stage.

GC-J: I think when you’re young you don’t realize. Being a Virgo and a perfectionist I wanted to do it right, but I never had the sense of going to fail. As an older person you’re more aware of what could go wrong in the world [Laughs] than when you’re young, There’s this fearlessness.

EM: Ignorance is bliss.

GC-J: Exactly. The “Ah, no!” was interesting. I was trying to get Lasik surgery because I have very poor vision, and they had told me I had to not wear contacts and keep my glasses, which of course I couldn’t onstage. So I made the choice as an ignorant 20-year-old to not wear contacts or glasses, so actually I remember not really singing too much [Laughs] and I think it actually helped! Everything was slightly blurry, so it was like, “Oh, am I on the Met stage? [Laughs] I could be anywhere.” 

 Next, Part 2: Mopping, not Moping 


Photo credits: Piper Artist Management, Philip Newton, Sunny Martini
Erica can be reached at:

Wednesday, October 2, 2019

Virtuoso Strings in Long Beach

Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra.


Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach

Martin Haselböck.
The term "virtuoso" is bandied about a lot these days, not always deservedly, but it was certainly appropriate in entitling Musica Angelica's season-opening concert the other night at the Beverly O'Neill Theater "Virtuoso Strings."

Music director Martin Haselböck led a program of Baroque music that featured a stellar group of string players, each of whom is, in a word, a virtuoso. The playing was phenomenal, individually and collectively. These Musica Angelica concerts, an aggregation of soloists—14 total on this occasion—playing as an ensemble, invariably showcase authentic performance practices executed at the highest level.

There were the usual suspects: co-concertmasters Ilia Korol and Cynthia Roberts, cellist Alexa Haynes-Pilon and violone player Denise Briesé are familiar talents whose transcending excellence is a regular feature of these concerts. And a new star was born, violinist YuEun Kim from Korea by way of USC, where she studied with Midori. She has a sparkling personality to go with her exceptional virtuosity.

Engraving of Heinrich Biber, dating from 1681.
Haselböck's well-chosen program began with the very odd Battalia à 10 by Heinrich Biber (1644-1704), from 1673. As Haselböck explained in his typically jocular, rambling introductory remarks, the piece, an early example of program music, depicts a group of soldiers who battle, celebrate drunkenly, dance, battle some more, and then mourn the wounded.

The second movement calls to mind Charles Ives, with four tunes going simultaneously in different keys, while the third imitates the sound of fife (violin) and drum (violone, with paper under the strings).

Elsewhere there are other striking instrumental effects; the players stomp their feet, play with the wood of the bow, and snap pizzicatos to simulate musket fire. Stuff like that. The piece is an unalloyed hoot.

Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706) and his hyperfamiliar Canon in D are more often encountered at weddings than in the concert hall. Here, eschewing the Romantic approach of Jean-François Paillard's famous 1968 recording, the piece received a brisk, unsentimental, yet very stylish reading, as did Pachelbel's less familiar Gigue that followed.

The bulk of the program consisted of concertos by two giants of the Baroque, Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) and Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). The latter wrote over 40 double concertos, where two instruments share the spotlight, and his Concerto for Violin, Violoncello and Strings in B-flat, RV547, is typical. Violinist Kim and cellist Haynes-Pilon, each a master of the style, clearly lived up to that virtuoso label. Vivaldi’s Concerto for Four Violins in B minor, RV 580, No. 10 from the Op. 3 collection L'Estro armonico, was later transcribed by Bach for four harpsichords. This dazzling performance featured astonishing pyrotechnics from Korol and Roberts, Kim, and Mishkar Nuñez-Fredell.

After intermission came Bach. His Brandenburg Concerto No. 6, BWV 105 was written for the unusual combination of two violas, here played by Korol and Cynthia Black, two violas da gamba (Justin-Haynes Pilon and Malachai Bandy), and continuo (Haynes-Pilon, Briesé, and Haselböck at the harpsichord). The interplay of instruments, especially between the two violas, was a delight, although a stronger player than Black would have been a better match for Korol's incisive playing. He, Roberts, and Kim returned to throw off more virtuosic sparks in Bach’s Concerto for Three Violins in D, BWV 1064. And then the group assembled for the perfect encore, a sheerly beautiful performance of the serene slow movement from Bach's  Third Orchestral Suite, BWV 1068, more familiarly known as the Air on the G String.

This is the 27th season of Musica Angelica’s existence, its fifth headquartered in Long Beach. All the players are experts in Baroque style, and they employ authentic, or replica, period instruments. They continue to play this attractive, irresistible repertoire as well as it can be played. They're a confederation of virtuosos, and there’s that word again.


Virtuoso Strings, Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach, Friday, September 27, 8 p.m.
Photo: Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra: Orchestra Facebook page; Martin Haselböck: Meinrad Hofer; Biber: Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

Ligeti, Dvořák, and Tchaikovsky open LBSO's 85th Season

Paul Huang (violin) and the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra under Eckart Preu perform
Dvořák’s Violin Concerto.

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

LBSO Music Director Eckart Preu’s acknowledged approach to program-building is three-fold: to include lesser-known works by well-known composers; to introduce music which, though highly listenable, will be unfamiliar to almost everyone; and, just as important, to acknowledge audiences’ devotion to the central repertoire by also playing things they know and love.

Eckart Preu.
This last, however, is predicated on not being handled as a chore, and it’s one of Maestro Preu’s signal gifts that he communicates equal enthusiasm for the unknown and ultra-familiar alike, and can make the latter seem new-minted. This was certainly the case with the two big Beethoven symphonies last season, and was also true of the performance of Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 5 in E minor Op. 64, with which the first concert of the LBSO’s 85th season ended last Saturday.

This blended unexaggerated fidelity to the score with an embrace of the work’s volatile, even neurotic, emotional content. Thus the slow, quiet introduction of the motto theme at the very start was Andante as marked, rather than the drawn-out dirge that some performances deliver, while at the other end of the work, the Finale’s often raucous triumphalism had just the right over-bright edge to make hysteria and despair seem an ever-present possibility.

Cabinet card portrait of Tchaikovsky
in 1888, the year he composed the
Fifth Symphony.
There was relishable instrumental detail throughout. Back at the start, after the first dotted phrase on low unison clarinets, their repeated quarter-note descending scales decrescendoed to just the right extent, against immaculately balanced chords in the lower strings. Again, the latter’s opening to the slow movement was perfectly balanced and paced, and succeeded by an account of the famous horn solo that lived and breathed the surges, pullings-back, and implicit anxieties in the plethora of expression marks with which Tchaikovsky loads its line, all far from the smooth anonymity it sometimes gets.

The LBSO were down a few string desks for this concert, due to impending auditions, but to my ears the resulting smaller, but still tight, sound was as much gain as loss in this movement, where the absence of a deep, plush string carpet enabled much felicitous woodwind detail to come through, with colors distinct rather then blurred and buried. This, though, didn’t mean there was any loss of passion when the strings’ turn to carry the big tune came around.

As for the “unknown unknown” that began the program… maybe it’s a bit perverse to say it, but anyone familiar with Stanley Kubrick’s use in 2001: A Space Odyssey of Gyögy Ligeti’s blurred, shifting vocal clusters in Lux Aeterna and Requiem and the convulsive atonal “sound masses” of his orchestral Atmosphères, might have been a bit disappointed by the relative conventionality of Concert Românesc, composed in 1951 at the age of 28.

However, as Maestro Preu’s characteristically detailed introductory talk made clear, the composer—famously avant-garde in his later years—introduced plenty of novel and imaginative effects within the overall tonal framework of this early four-movement (slow-fast-slow-fast), 12-minute work, whose melodies, rhythms and timbres reflect Ligeti’s Romanian folk-music heritage.

György Ligeti.
In the brief Andantino first movement, constant changes in meter kept players and listeners alike alert, while its frenetic successor found the LBSO winds pungently forceful both collectively and individually, with a positively manic piccolo as first among equals. One specific influence from Ligeti’s early childhood was hearing Romanian alphorns in the mountains, and this is reflected in the call-and-response between onstage and offstage horns in the third movement—suitably atmospheric in the Terrace Theater’s wide open spaces.

In the finale (a bit too long for its content) another infant experience, of being frightened by reveling folk-musicians bursting into his house, was reflected in percussion-driven snapping and whirling, which climaxed in muted trills and other violin pyrotechnics by concertmaster Roger Wilkie at the upper limits of his fingerboard and of audibility, while the on-and-offstage horns returned amidst ffff slaps from the rest of the orchestra.

Overall, I’m glad I heard Concert Românesc—without particularly wanting to again—and though a bit more rehearsal time might have enabled the gallant LBSO, none of whom surely had ever played it before, to sound even more rawly spontaneous, the performance had real bite and freshness, and went down well with the audience.

Paul Huang.
So to the “little-known known.” If Dvořák’s Violin Concerto in A minor Op. 53 B. 108, isn't quite the equal of the celebrated Cello Concerto in sheer heartfelt intensity, it more than earns a repertoire place alongside, say, the far more frequently performed First Violin Concerto of Max Bruch. And so far as sheer ear-catching memorability is concerned, for my money its rondo Finale equals that of the Brahms Violin Concerto—or at least so it seemed in the gloriously spontaneous account by the Taiwan-born violinist Paul Huang, the latest in an apparently inexhaustible series of gifted young guest soloists to have enhanced LBSO concerts in recent years.

His account of the Dvořák concerto, devotedly accompanied by Maestro Preu and the LBSO, formed the centerpiece of this concert. The opening orchestral tutti definitely veered to the ma non troppo side of the first movement’s Allegro ma non troppo marking, coming over as exceedingly weighty and portentous, and it was a mark of how well-prepared the performance was that Mr. Huang’s solo entry, only five measures in, sounded vigorously authoritative without any audible gear-change from the slow opening.

Thereafter the movement gathered pace and coherence until it arrived at a beautifully spacious account of Dvořák’s subtle elision into the slow movement. This—whether by design or not as subtly thwarting of inter-movement applause as the equivalent linking passage in Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto—was one feature of his concerto’s construction that Dvořák stubbornly hung onto amid the wholesale rewrites demanded by the dedicatee, Joseph Joachim, and publisher Simrock—and how right he was. (I wonder whether his 1879 original survives? A quick Google search of English-language sources didn’t reveal.)

Dvořák in 1879, the year he first
drafted the Violin Concerto.
So finely calculated are the 13 Quasi moderato measures in this passage that without the score to hand it’s difficult to hear exactly where it passes into the slow movement, but once under way, the principal theme poured forth in long-breathed paragraphs from Mr. Huang’s 1742 Guarneri (with again a ma non troppo qualifier, this time of the basic Adagio marking, scrupulously observed).

Fine though this was, the Allegro giocoso (but, yet again, ma non troppo) Finale was even more memorable, dancingly airborne from start to finish, but with Mr. Huang’s perfectly focused intonation never compromised despite the speeds. The movement unfolded so seemingly without effort that Dvořák’s endlessly resourceful skill in casting ever-new instrumental light and shade on his rondo theme, without ever masking its returns, simply flashed by.

The audience cheered this magnificent performance to the Terrace Theater’s rafters, and after being called back several times Mr. Huang obliged with a richly elaborated encore that had me unsuccessfully scratching my memory, but which my knowledgeable spouse Jill informed me was The Red Violin Caprices. Time to check whether the movie, so memorably scored by John Corigliano, is available anywhere for a rewatch… 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, September 28, 2018, 8 p.m.
Photos: Performance: Caught in the Moment Photography; Tchaikovsky: Wikimedia Commons; Ligeti: Talk Classical; Paul Huang: Marco BorggreveDvořák: Official composer website.