Monday, October 18, 2021

Stephen Powell Sings to Planet Earth

Shannon Finney

CD REVIEW: Stephen Powell 


Vocal artists who accompany themselves on the piano are relatively rare in the classical world as compared to the non-classical world. In his latest CD release on Acis, Why Do the Nations, Grammy-nominated baritone Stephen Powell demonstrates that this can be accomplished in the classical genre—perhaps even for the first time in history. It helps, of course, to have one of the most superb baritone voices on the planet. That splendid voice remains Powell’s strong suit in this endeavor.

Powell’s raison d’être for the album containing 27 art songs from 11 nations is to “speak to the universal themes that can heal a broken world: love and longing, peace and prosperity.” The baritone seeks to demonstrate that these themes can unite the world’s peoples across traditional boundaries of nation, race, sex, and gender. This is a tall order, but Powell delivers on his promise with a stunning array of international airs that please the ear and capture the imagination.

Puccini is most familiar to music aficionados as an opera composer, but the two chosen tracks, Morire (“To Die”) and Terra e Mare (“Earth and Sea”) give the composer’s work a different perspective. From the first words, Powell’s lush, ravishing voice comes across in its finest sheen. He then challenges himself further by ending on high notes in the upper register: a difficult feat.

Not to be outdone in the Italian vein, Verdi adds his greatness in the lilting Il Poveretto (“The Poor Little Man”) and La Seduzione (“The Seduction”). Powell shows his operatic chops to advantage in both, evoking pity for the forgotten soldier as well as for the betrayed, innocent young girl.

In Ravel’s Chanson à Boire from Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, Fauré’s Mandoline and Paladilhe’s Petits Enfants, Powell creates the subtleties and liveliness of the French tradition. Quichotte’s declaration, Je bois à toi! (I drink to you!) shows a youthful energy that can convince any ideal woman of his ardor, even coming from an old man. He then beautifully conveys tenderness and delicacy: of that instrument of serenaders, the mandolin, and in his tribute to the gifts that newborn infants give to the world.

Shannon Finney

Germany is well represented in the mix. Powell portrays profound emotion in Richard Strauss’s Mahlerian Ich Trage Meine Minne (“I Carry My Love”). This touching refrain merges exquisitely with strains of famous art song creators Schubert—the universal favorite Die Forelle (“The Trout”)—the Brahms paean to love, Mein Liebe ist Grün (“My Love is Green”) and Hugo Wolf ‘s Auch Kleine Dinge (“Even Small Things”). All were rendered with true loving affection

From Spain, De Falla’s familiar, swingy El Paño Moruno (“The Moorish Cloth”) displayed Powell’s virtuosity both vocally and pianistically. The baritone floated the high tones charmingly in Obradors’ ¿Corazón Porqué Pasáis? (Heart, Why Do You Spend?)

Russian art song was embodied in arias from two of its most beloved late Romantic composers, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff: respectively, Nochi Bezumnyye (“Nights of Frenzy”) and Vesenniye Vody (“Spring Waters”). Both powerful songs demand feverish, unbridled urgency. Powell was up to the challenge, and the difficult high notes were rendered with full-out passion.

Outside of the Continent, Britten’s The Brisk Young Widow and Michael Head’s Money, O! were sung briskly, combining satirical flair and lyricism. 

In addition to the above, Powell shows his versatility with an unusual mix of less frequently heard songs from China, Japan, and Korea, ending the selections with a satisfying mixture of music by American composers Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and Aaron Copland. The latter’s Zion’s Walls packs a punch with its military declamation. Likewise, Barber’s I Hear an Army asks a hard question, “Why have you left me alone?”—perhaps our planet’s cry as to what we have perpetrated on her. 

Powell ends the entire collection boldly and powerfully, with a strong, dissonant statement from Ives in his Scriabin-like Majority: “The Masses are singing, Whence comes the Art of the World! The Masses are yearning, Whence comes the hope of the World!” 

The overall message Powell so compellingly communicates in this stunning collection shows that in the end, the ancient refrain of music’s universality holds true even in today’s troubled world. If Why Do the Nations is as widely disseminated and carefully listened to as it deserves to be, there may be hope for our planet after all.

Recording details: Acis APLS51200 

Producer: Geoffrey Silver. Engineer: Kevin Bourassa

Recorded 2021, Blue House, Kensington, MD USA 

Ken Yanigasawa


Photo credits: Stephen Powell, Shannon Finney, Ken Yanigasawa
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Quartet of Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Ory Shihor plays Beethoven at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.


"Beethoven: Darkness to Light", Ory Shihor, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

This recital by the Israeli-American pianist Ory Shihor of four Beethoven piano sonatas (two early-ish, one middle-period, one late-ish, but not in that order) was predicated upon what I guess the movie industry would call a "high concept" idea: in the words of the pre-concert publicity, "Within each of the evening's four works, Beethoven counteracts an inevitable darkness with luminous light. Shihor is presenting these sonatas in pairs—a celebrated work with a lesser known one—further accentuating this metaphoric and musical chasm." 

Fears that exaggerated expressive point-making might ensue were rapidly shown to be groundless. All four performances were clear, clean, and direct, with plenty of virtuosity when required, and Mr. Shihor's way of following each movement of every sonata attacca upon its predecessor, even when Beethoven doesn't actually ask for it (as in several cases here), further bonded each performance into a tight-knit expressive whole, as well as torpedoing any audience inclination toward clapping between movements.

Beethoven in 1801, around the
time of the composition of the
Piano Sonatas Nos. 12 and 14.
In addition, he requested no applause between the sonatas in each pair, and thus the calm, almost off-hand conclusion to the second of the Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90's two movements segued, with not much more than a silent breath-pause, into the familiar opening of the "Moonlight", Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2. Similarly, and just as effectively, the deceptively tentative opening to the great "Appassionata" Sonata No. 23 in F minor Op. 57 stole in on the heels of the almost gnomically brief rondo finale to the Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major Op. 26

The "Moonlight" was particularly successful: Mr. Shihor's flowing tempo for the familiar opening Adagio sostenuto led naturally via the marked attacca subito into a fairly relaxed account of the brief .central Allegretto, instead of the wake-up jolt that more indulgent gazings at the moonlight engender in some performances. The Presto agitato finale, quite lengthy with its big repeat in place, had all the necessary voltage, making the total effect of this "Sonata quasi una Fantasia"—as the first edition, published soon after the work's composition, heads it—more like a work in two equal halves than in three separate movements.

But how far did these four works, in these juxtapositions, justify the "darkness and light" dichotomy or, conversely, did the concept illuminate them, and thus reveal something of Beethoven's creative wellsprings? As an introduction to the concert, there had been a half-hour conversation between Mr. Shihor and Classical KUSC's Brian Lauritzen, with additional contributions from Lucas Sha, a piano student and colleague of Mr. Shihor.

This opportunity to delve into how the "darkness and light" duality might be observed and felt in these particular sonatas was, I felt, something of a missed one. Mr. Shihor had gone back to Beethoven's manuscripts in preparation for the concert, and noted the ambiguity of his dynamic markings, but instead of illustrations from the keyboard, which would have been welcome, the conversation veered off into entertaining but not altogether relevant Beethovenian anecdotes—like the source of the stains on the "Appassionata" manuscript.

Beethoven in 1815, the year after the
composition of the Piano Sonata No. 27.
For me, abstract concepts like "darkness" and "light" don't really fit with Beethoven as we know him, unlike some aspects of, say, Bruckner's and Sibelius's music. Beethoven's giant personality is so immediate and omnipresent that what we take from his music are all aspects of a human response. The "Moonlight" nickname wasn't Beethoven's, but one might see this later Romantic epithet in the light of his own title to the first movement of the "Pastoral" symphony — "Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside" — a subjective human reaction, not an abstract description.

So taking the "darkness and light" dichotomy in terms of Beethoven's own shifting moods, the four sonatas in this recital were certainly revealing: sometimes suddenly, often transitorily, and even contradictorily, as in the first movement of Sonata No. 27, whose lengthy marking Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck (With liveliness and with feeling and expression throughout) seems almost deliberately perverse, given that shades, doubts, and hesitancies are baked into the music—and were faithfully conveyed in Mr. Shihor's performance.

Sonata No. 12 is sometimes nicknamed "Funeral March" on account of its Maestoso andante third movement's heading "Marcia funebre sulla morte d'un eroe." Whether or not this can be heard as a sort of "dry run" for the "Eroica" funeral march, it is shot through with what seems personal anguish and bitterness rather than, say, the sort of stately ceremonial you get in Berlioz' Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale. Mr. Shihor again gave this aspect full value—accentuated by the penetrating "ping" of his Yamaha piano's upper register.

The final page of the "Appassionata" manuscript, with water stains from the rainstorm during which Beethoven angrily departed from his patron Prince Lichnowsky's estate, following an altercation over his refusal to play for the Prince's French military guests.

As for the "Appassionata"'s tremendous expressive gamut, from alternate musing and high energy in the first movement to what feels like rage, even hysteria, in the finale, Mr. Shihor once more had its full measure, though by the end his articulation was showing signs of the toll of playing so much demanding and many-sided music more or less continuously, and from memory. One probably shouldn't, therefore, complain about his omission of Beethoven's rare second-half repeat in that finale.

All-in-all, this recital was something of a triumph in performance terms, even with those doubts about its conceptual basis. And in these days, when even music as great as this is often treated as therapeutic aural wallpaper, a concert designed to make us actually think is a treasurable rarity...


Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, 7.30pm, Thursday, October 7, 2021. 
Images: The performance: Lawrence K. Ho; Beethoven portraits: Wikimedia Commons; "Appassionata" manuscript: IMSLP.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Met Opera Concertmaster Raymond Gniewek: A Remembrance

TRIBUTE: Raymond Gniewek

Metropolitan Opera, New York City

The loss of a much loved, respected musical icon, no matter at what age, is always a sad event. For those musicians who knew and worked with Raymond Gniewek, the news of his passing, just short of his 90th birthday, evokes much more than respect. It calls to mind admiration, appreciation, and untold reverence. 

My entire life as a Met Orchestra violinist for 21 years centered around our incomparable concertmaster, Ray Gniewek. I will be forever thankful to have found in him such an extraordinary mentor. Memories of what it meant to work so closely with Ray in the first violin section of the Met Orchestra keep flooding back as I try to process the passing of this exquisite musician and wonderful person, whose loss I feel so deeply. Ray will always be in my heart. I envision him in violinists’ heaven, playing his solos like no one else can. 

Ray often talked to us of his background, of his violin studies with the great Joseph Knitzer at the Eastman School of Music. He never made a big deal about the fact that he also had been accepted at MIT, which just added to his exceptional standing in our eyes. At the age of 25, he was the youngest concertmaster ever to be appointed at the Met. In his 43 years in the position, he never ceased to take that colossal responsibility seriously. That, in of itself, is both impressive and astonishing. 

The Met, particularly its violinists, have lost a great guide and friend in Ray: a leader above and beyond what I could ever have imagined. He was our guiding light in the first violin section; so centered, so focused. A fine violinist and unexcelled concertmaster, Ray never, never missed. He was our rock. We could never lose our way with Ray at the helm. And his solos, especially in the fiendishly difficult Strauss operas, were incomparable. The sound he produced was exquisite, the technique flawless, and the overall musicianship striking.

It was a humbling experience to watch Ray in action. Even when he wasn’t playing his amazing solos, he was in the pit, devotedly practicing operas he knew inside out, always striving for perfection in his performance. As an example, Act 2 of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera opens with a difficult passage divided in octaves, between each player on a stand, the upper octave very high in the register. Ray would practice playing both octaves of the passage simultaneously! It was mind-blowing. And we would just watch, listen, and learn, marveling at his expertise and the ease with which he executed the excerpt. That was Ray Gniewek.

There were also moments of levity. Often, during rehearsals for Verdi’s Aida, the Act 3 tenor’s “O Re, pei sacri numi” (“Oh King, for the sacred gods”) evoked smiles from music director James Levine, who would turn to Ray, beaming, and mime the words, “Oh Ray!” We would all smile in turn, knowing how apt the quote was: Ray was the absolute King of the orchestra, in every way.

But Ray also never faltered in his encouragement to us violinists to be the very best; he was a shining example of what we could aspire to. Even before I joined the Met Orchestra, I used to watch his performances from the Standing Room section in the uppermost reaches of the Family Circle. His playing was so stunning, so elegant, that it communicated hugely to me, even from that enormous distance. 

Imagine how thrilled I was when I eventually found myself playing in the orchestra pit, able to observe him from up close, benefiting from his outstanding leadership. It was an opportunity and an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. I remember numerous times when the rotation placed me on the stand right behind him. My stand partner forewarned me: I must play impeccably; Ray had eyes in the back of his head, and his finely tuned ears would detect the slightest flaw. In fact, I discovered, he had an uncanny ability to discern whatever was going on, even as far as the last player at the back of the section. It was that unique perspicacity that created such excellence in the Met’s first violin section.

Met Orchestra members Laurence Glazener, Judith Yanchus, Midhat Serbagi; with Judith Blegen and Raymond Gniewek. Photo credit: Raymond Gniewek 

The response and outpouring of emotion on social media about Ray’s passing have been heartwarming:

“Raymond Gniewek's name has been a hallmark for the excellence of the Met Orchestra's artistry and support of thousands of Met artists.” “He, more than any other player, was responsible for the Met orchestra moving into the ranks of the greatest orchestras in the world.” “As a concertmaster he was every conductor’s dream.” “Best concert master ever!” “Smart, secure—so secure—and unassuming” “Truly a legend.” “Incredible violinist and a great man.” “A consummate artist.”

In his final solo appearance at Carnegie Hall, Ray’s playing of the “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs was even more gorgeous than in the version we had performed in the opera house. The audience response was overwhelming—and he brought his orchestra colleagues to tears.

The world of the Met, and the world in general, will not be the same without Ray. I will always miss him, but I also will celebrate the incalculable gifts that he so generously gave to me, both musically and personally. 

Former Maestro Levine once was quoted saying, “The single luckiest things that happened to me since I have been at the Met is that Ray Gniewek was the concertmaster.”

That holds true for every one of us in the orchestra. May his memory be a blessing always.


Photo credits: Laurence Glazener, Raymond Gniewek, public domain
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, October 1, 2021

Expanding the Cello Quintet Repertoire

Sakura Cello Quintet: l-r Peter Myers, Stella Cho, Benjamin Lash, Michael Kaufman, Yoshida Masuka (in this performance Ben Solomonow stood in for Mr. Masuka).


Sakura Cello Quintet, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

But, you may well ask, what cello quintet repertoire? Opening its 2021-2022 season, the SBCMS's first live concert with audience for more than a year-and-a-half might at first glance have seemed a lightweight affair, a toe in the water or dip in the shallow end, if you will— fairly short in total duration and entirely comprising arrangements of brief pieces, some well-known and some less so.

Ben Solomonow.
However, in a program for an unfamiliar, even unlikely, instrumental line-up, played by an ensemble fresh I think to the SBCMS performers' roster, the Sakura Cello Quintet (Peter Myers, Stella Cho, Benjamin Lash, and Michael Kaufman, with Ben Solomonow standing in for the unavoidably absent Yushida Masuka) so skillfully reworked vocal and instrumental works ranging from the early 17th to the late 20th centuries that it could fairly be taken to signal a notable expansion of works available to this medium of five cellos—as indeed may be confirmed by the group's own website.

They opened with a group of four Renaissance items, three Tudor and one Spanish, and in the intimate but rich acoustic of LA Harbor College's Music Room, the cellos' wide timbral spectrum imparted an organ-like depth and breadth to the stately harmonies of Orlando Gibbons' a cappella motet The Silver Swan, in an unattributed arrangement. The pace picked up with John Dowland's M. George Whitehead his Almand, and grew yet more sprightly in his The Earle of Essex Galliard, both from Dowland's great set of five-part instrumental pieces entitled Lachrimæ, published in 1604.

Carlo Gesualdo.
But an almost shocking corrective to this amiable courtliness came with the tortuous harmonies and whiplash pace and mood switches of Gesualdo's madrigal Moro, Lasso, al mio duolo (I die, alas, in my suffering). On five cellos this was no less expressive of grief (and, perhaps, guilt, as Sakura member Peter Myers implied in his brief introductory reference to Gesualdo's murder in 1590 of his wife and her lover) than as sung in the original, published in Gesualdo's sixth book of madrigals in 1611.

One can hardly imagine a starker change of style and content than the Ritual Fire Dance from Falla's ballet El amor brujo (Love the magician), arranged by Mr. Myers. The opening tremolando buzz on lower strings from the orchestral original translated perfectly, as one might have expected, to four cellos; what was more surprising was how effective the ensuing insidious oboe tune sounded in the husky high treble of the remaining instrument. 

Brahms (l) and Joachim (r).
So far, so effective, but I did feel some expressive loss in Mr. Myers' arrangement of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, though that may have been due to the performance's diminution of the dynamic range familiar from Rachmaninoff's own version for voice and orchestra. As for the scherzo that Brahms contributed to the portmanteau F-A-E Violin Sonata composed in 1853 for Joseph Joachim (will we ever get a chance to hear the complete work, with Albert Dietrich's fine first movement as well as Brahms' scherzo and Schumann's intermezzo and finale?), Brahms might have blinked a bit at the positively pachydermian gruffness of his opening theme transferred from violin/piano to five cellos—but then again, maybe he wouldn't...

This arrangement was by Sakura's Michael Kaufman, who was also responsible for the quite lovely version of Dvořák's Silent Woods, Op. 68 No. 5 that opened the concert's second half. Like the Vocalise this exists in many guises, much the most familiar being the one made by Dvořák himself for cello and small orchestra from his four-hands piano original. Without scores to hand it was impossible to be sure, but presumably Mr. Kaufman's arrangement reproduced pretty much Dvořák's solo cello part, in this performance democratically shared between the players.

Again a major change of pace came with Somewhere from West Side Story, the evanescent harmonies from which Bernstein's unforgettable melody is suspended being eloquently realized in the arrangement by Simon Parkin (not a Sakura member). Then smack in arrived Mambo, complete with the familiar shouts!

Chick Corea.
Perhaps the most surprising, and audacious, arrangement of all was that by Mr. Myers of Brahms' Intermezzo in E-flat major, the first of three written and published as his Op. 117 in 1892, five years before his death. Audacious, because the personal character of Brahms' late piano works has always seemed intimately, and inextricably, involved with the piano and its timbres. Well, five cellos enhanced, if anything, this piece's musing, prayerful quality—an addition indeed to their repertoire. I wonder whether the other Intermezzi would lend themselves as well?

Finally, there was Spain, by Chick Corea. To me, any intrinsic quality the piece had leant heavily on the fragments of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez adagio that form an introduction to what seemed an elaboration of generic Spanishisms—but then, jazz remains pretty much a closed book to me. Undeniably, though, Peter Myers' arrangement and Sakura's performance made the most of it, kicking off SBCMS's new season with panache and swirl. Welcome back! 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College, 8pm, Friday, September 24, 2021.
Images: Sakura Cello Quintet: Artists' website; Ben Solomonow:; Composers: Wikimedia Commons. 

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Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Four Hands, One Piano... and an Audience!

The Latsos Piano Duo: Giorgi Latso and Anna Fedorova-Latso.


Latsos Piano Duo

Unlike the South Bay Chamber Music Society—which for its new 2021-2022 season has reverted entirely to the Society's time-honored format of mounting the same concert twice in two different venues over one weekend, before live audiences and without videotaping, preliminary or otherwise—Classical Crossroads Inc. are adopting a more cautious, step-by-step approach to their new seasons of "Second Sundays at Two" and “First Fridays at First!~fff” recitals.

The initial "[email protected]" concert of 2021-2022, by pianist Althea Waites, was videotaped in isolation and posted on September 12 for on-line enjoyment here, but both the first two “[email protected]!” concerts were recorded before small audiences of "Special Friends and Top Supporters." September's recital, by violinist YuEun Kim and pianist Sung Chang, can be heard here, while October's, a piano duo recital of works by Mendelssohn, Chopin, Debussy, Schubert, and Souza, was given last Monday and videotaped for posting on line on "First Friday", October 1.

Felix Mendelssohn, sketch
by Friedrich von Schadow.
The Latsos Piano Duo—husband-and-wife team Giorgi Latso and Anna Fedorova-Latso—previously appeared in Classical Crossroads' former concert series "The Interludes" in March 2019 (reviewed here), and on that occasion too they played what was the first item in this current recital, Mendelssohn's Andante and Allegro brillante in A major for piano four hands, Op. 92 MWV T 4, a work of the composer's maturity, written in 1841 at the age of 32.

They clearly have the piece in this form firmly in their repertoire—"in this form" because while the main Allegro assai vivace movement was published alone as Op. 92 in 1851, four years after Mendelssohn's death, the Andante section that precedes it in the composer's manuscript only achieved print in 1994. At their previous performance I found this too brief to counterbalance the long fast section, but on the other hand it seemed too lengthy to be just a "slow introduction."

Whether it was the performance or just me, this time around the Andante felt perfectly fine in that role, perhaps because with its clear recapitulatory structure the Allegro could easily have been the first movement of a never-to-be-pursued sonata, and as such the addition of a two-and-a-half minute slow introduction had plenty of precedents in Classical sonata-structure movements. Either way, the Latsos clearly love and were totally on top of the piece, the intricate cross-cutting of their 20 flashing digits as mesmerising visually as the intricate clockwork of Mendelssohn's musical pattern-making beguiled the ears.

Each member of the Duo followed this with a solo item. First, Giorgi Latso delivered a rambunctious, propulsive account of Chopin's 1842 Polonaise No. 6 in A-flat major, Op. 53 B. 147 that fully lived up to the work's nickname of Héroique. Interestingly, the Anglo-German musicologist Sir Charles Hallé (1819-1895) wrote: "Once Chopin told me that he felt very unhappy when he heard the grande polonaise in A flat major played fast, as it spoilt the whole grandeur and majesty of that noble inspiration." I think he might have liked Mr. Latso's interpretation.

Maurice Ravel.
Ms. Fedorova-Latso followed with a fleet performance of Ravel's Jeux d'eau M 30 that began appropriately Très doux but did, I felt, iron out some of the work's very wide dynamic range—from pp to fff, no less—and then the Duo rejoined for the program's longest item, Schubert's Sonata in B-flat major for piano four hands, Op. 30, D 617.

Schubert's catalog of works for the four hands medium is extensive—some 50 in number, including his very earliest known, the Fantasie in G major D 1. The present Sonata in B-flat major was written in 1818, probably for two young aristocratic pupils to play, and despite having been published in his lifetime (something sadly infrequent for Schubert's works) now seems to be somewhat neglected, to judge by the few recordings listed on ArkivMusic.

It was thus a particular pleasure to be acquainted with it, for the first time for this listener (there is always something new to discover in Schubert's vast oeuvre), and in a performance as affectionate as that of the Latsos—light on repeats, its three movements were all over in not much more than 16 minutes, no Schubertian "heavenly lengths" here! With technical demands (presumably) as modest for the players as the work is modest in scale, the Latsos' performance of Schubert's Sonata did nothing to prepare one for the virtuosity with which they tackled the final item.

Again modestly described as a "4-hands arrangement by Giorgi Latso" of Sousa's Stars and Stripes Forever, he should have called it at least a "Fantasia" on the well-known quasi-anthem. Requiring co-ordination between the players as perilously immaculate as a Barnum & Bailey highwire act, the piece was as over-the-top and hilarious as Ives' similarly crazy Variations on America for organ. Any piano duo needing a knockout encore item should look no further. Thrill! Wonder! as you watch when it (and the other performances in this "First Friday" recital) go on line from 12:15 p.m. on Friday, October 1, here


“First Fridays at First!”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, October 1 (recorded Monday, September 27), 2021. 
Images: The Latsos: artists' website; Mendelssohn, Ravel: Wikimedia Commons; Stars and Stripes: Library of Congress.

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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]