Monday, May 13, 2024

Seattle Opera Serves Up 60th Anniversary Gala Concert


Greer Grimsley
Sunny Martini

REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


To commemorate both the finish to a highly successful 2023-24 season and the 60th anniversary of the company’s 1963 founding, Seattle Opera held a gala double celebration on May 11 highlighted by a star-studded ensemble of solo singers, the 52-member Seattle Opera Chorus, and members of the Seattle Symphony. It was an exceptional evening, serving up slice after slice of ganache-filled operatic birthday cake to delight a pumped audience ready for anything.

Kazem Abdullah
Philip Newto
The program, if a bit overlong, accomplished its goal of displaying the performers’ strong suits. Helmed by Conductor Kazem Abdullah (X: the Life and Times of Malcolm X), the cast of celebrities, many of them beloved SO favorites, brought a stellar sheen to the festivities, with a combination of solo arias, small ensembles, full opera scenes and choruses, and orchestral numbers. David Gately’s always entertaining direction for the singers provided plenty of visual interest for the audience.

The most prominent luminary of the evening, Greer Grimsley, demonstrated why he remains a living legend as the head god in Wagner’s Ring. After acquitting himself majestically in Wotan’s “Farewell,” Grimsley joined the ranks of lush-voiced bass-baritones able to cross over to another form of elegance, paying homage to the occasion with his impassioned “Some Enchanted Evening” from Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific.

Greer Grimsley
Philip Newton

“Ô vin, dissipe la tristesse” from the Ambroise Thomas Hamlet is always a favorite for opera galas to show off a gifted baritone. John Moore, who portrayed the lead in SO’s production of The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs, gamely took on the difficult task of being first batter up and delivered strongly.
In her partnering with Moore, soprano Sarah Coburn’s vibrant high notes carried beautifully throughout the hall, in the “Pronta io son” duet from Donizetti’s Don Pasquale, and with SO Resident Artist Michael J. Hawk, in the passionate “Nedda! Silvio!” from Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Performing both of these duets may have caused her to flag later on, however, in “Ardon gl’incensi” from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, a grueling test for both vocal pyrotechnics and stamina.

Fans of Ginger Costa-Jackson had the opportunity to watch her perform multiple times, delivering winning performances vocally, dramatically and comically. Costa-Jackson and bass Adam Lau provided delightful comic antics in “Oh! Che muso” from Rossini’s The Italian Girl in Algiers, and the mezzo was at her sultry best in the Habanera from Bizet’s Carmen.

Ginger Costa-Jackson
Philip Newton
A radiant Mary Elizabeth Williams, who received major recognition for her SO performance of the fiendish role of Isolde in 2022, brought down the house with an inspiring rendition of “My man’s gone now” from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Williams and Costa-Jackson then performed one of opera’s most iconic and difficult soprano and mezzo duets, “Mira, o Norma” from Bellini’s Norma. The pair performed fearlessly, with bold, dramatic flourishes.

Mary Elizabeth Williams
Philip Newton

Duke Kim, the engaging Almaviva in SO’s current production of The Barber of Seville, rendered the poignant “Ah! Lêve-toi, soleil” from Gounod’s Romeo and Juliet with heartfelt passion and powerful top notes. He and Michael J. Hawk gave a dramatically convincing interpretation of the gorgeous tenor and baritone duet, “Au fond du temple saint” from Bizet’s The Pearl Fishers.

Any bel canto tenor would give his eye teeth to perform “Una furtiva lagrima” from Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love. Amitai Pati sang sweetly and sincerely, appropriate for the naïve irresistible character the aria portrays, producing beautiful tones throughout. One hopes to hear more from him in the future.

Adam Lau’s performance of “Aprite un po’ quegl’occhi” from Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro was vocally strong, and his appealing playfulness brought appreciative guffaws from the audience.

The Seattle Symphony made the most of its virtuosity and lush orchestral sound with an energetic rendering of the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s beloved opera, Eugene Onegin.

In a surprise move,  U.S. representative from Washington's 7th congressional district Pramila Jayapal gave a moving address about the astonishing accomplishments of SO General Director Christina Scheppelmann, who took charge of SO in 2019. Jayapal then presented Scheppelmann with a commemorative plaque honoring the general director’s hard work as well as the multifaceted success of her leadership. The audience was delighted to hear that the Seattle City Council had declared May “Opera Month” throughout the city.

Christina Scheppelmann, Pramila Jayapal, Deborah Horne
Philip Newton

Having provided a buoyant opening to the concert with the Entry of the Guests from Wagner’s Tannhäuser, the Seattle Opera Chorus inspired the audience with “Va Pensiero” from Verdi’s Nabucco. Their Pilgrims’ Chorus from Tannhäuser provided a seemly finish to an enchanted evening that will be remembered for many decades as an occasion that was memorable in every way.

To highlight the importance of the event, Seattle’s well-respected FM classical station,, will broadcast a series of recordings (May 10, May 17, May 24 and May 31) drawn from the company’s history. 

Photo credits: Philip Newton, Sunny Martini


Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Sunday, May 5, 2024

A Barber for All Seasons


REVIEW: Seattle Opera

McCaw Hall, Seattle


According to Beethoven, Rossini’s “excellent opera buffa,” The Barber of Seville, would be “played so long as Italian opera will exist.” The older master’s assessment was spot on. Over the past two centuries, this youthful, energetic confection remains Rossini’s most beloved work.

On May 4, Seattle Opera chose this gem, a co-production between Opera Queensland, Seattle Opera and New Zealand Opera, to initiate the photo finish to their 2023-24 season. It was clearly the right move. Directed by Lindy Hume (SO’s The Stranger, Rigoletto, Count Ory), with its boldly colored, spectacularly vibrant sets and costumes, gave an overall effect that was captivating: funny, sexy, and alive.

The well-appointed cast included panoplies of familiar performers coupled with an impressive number of fresh new faces, providing an extraordinary assemblage of talent onstage.

Duke Kim,
Sean Michael Plumb

It’s always intriguing to see a Figaro making his debut, and Sean Michael Plumb, who already has made a name for himself at the Met Opera, was shamelessly self-promoting in his characterization. His initial appearance via the hall for his Largo factotum aria, reminiscent of Alice’s White Rabbit being late for a very important date (i.e., showing up for his entrance) set the stage for an appealing portrayal that was comically adept, emphasizing the character’s inherent subtleties more than the slapstick angle. The voice, with its fearless high notes, fully filled the hall with no problem whatsoever.

Megan Moore, also in her company debut, brought a combination of dreaminess and down-to-earth feistiness to her portrayal of the young Rosina. Her voice was remarkably flexible and varied: brighter and more lyrical than usual for this role, with a range that was superbly agile from top to bottom. Her acting was convincing; no one, not even Figaro, was going to mess with this fiery, determined young woman.

As Almaviva Duke Kim delivered a well-rounded performance that was proficient, not only vocally but comically. Both of his Act 1 arias showed that this role lies perfectly within his fach: lyrical, technically skillful with all the fioratura. But he also stood out in the ensembles, contributing greatly to the cohesiveness of the whole, and showed exceptional comic élan in all the physically demanding antics the staging required of him. 

Returning bass Kevin Burdette is an opera singer for all seasons, known for his comic flair, but also for more serious roles. He portrayed Don Bartolo in true Jim Carrey style, emphasizing the wicked, Count Olaf aspects of the crotchety old tormentor, showing his sleazy side to great effect and acquitting himself impressively in the role’s more demanding vocal aspects.

William Guanbo Su,
Kevin Burdette
William Guanbo Su made a huge impression debuting as Don Basilio. The voice is much fuller and lusher than what is accustomed in this role, powerful but not thunderous, and overwhelming the listener with its power and sumptuousness. His acting was appropriately varied: at once comical and serious, mugging when appropriate, grabbing the viewer’s attention whenever he was onstage.

In her SO debut, Deanne Meek’s Berta was more fleshed out (literally; see above: “sexy”) than was usual for this secondary role, with an offbeat, gawking characterization that elicited appreciative laughter throughout the house. Her Act 2 aria, often somewhat an afterthought, came off so beautifully as to compete with any of the other arias in the show, especially its ringing high notes.

Michael J. Hawk, in his SO debut, stood out in the small but pivotal role of Fiorello. Marc Kenison/Waxie Moon as Ambrogio provided the required antics with aplomb.

Another refreshing debut was that of Italian conductor Valentina Peleggi, who displayed Florentine subtlety in her lively tempi, intuitive phrasing, and overall command of the orchestra. Starting with a spirited overture, she maintained an appropriately Italianate character in each aria and ensemble and brought out the absolute best from the orchestra, all the way to the end.

Chorus master Michaella Calzaretta continues to impress with her first-rate coaching of her singers, who were required to execute complicated stage maneuvers in addition to their singing demands.

Duke Kim,
Megan Moore

Tracy Grant Lord’s set designs included an assortment of doors and windows, both interior and exterior, which symbolized the burning desire of a young woman to spring free of her restricted captive world. Figaro, her lifeline to the outside, crisscrosses between outside and inside, while her would-be lover Almaviva, fantasizing about breaking down the doors to liberate her from her prison, serenades her from the outside. The concept works brilliantly, as the minor characters—Berta being a prime example—also dream of being set free.

Matthew Marshall’s eye-catching lighting provided continuous interest with arresting detail, from the lit-up doorways and windowsills during the overture to the jaundiced yellow of Basilio’s supposed illness and beyond.

Hume’s direction provided plentiful opportunity for the characters to ham it up. It's not every day one sees a long-limbed man dangling upside down from a chandelier. But the pièce de resistance was the stunningly presented, authentically choreographed fandango finale. All the characters banded together to dance, slap hands, and in general carry on to the max to Associate Director and Choreographer Daniel Pelzig’s brilliant step routine. A great deal of work went into this buoyant, vigorous ending, and it showed. The audience could barely contain their delight. That is a sure sign of a well thought out, splendidly implemented production. It was without a doubt the highlight of, and a perfect ending to, the company’s season.

The Barber of Seville runs May 4–19, 2024, at Seattle Opera. Tickets and info:

Photo credits: Phillip Newton

 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Thursday, May 2, 2024

The Mason House Hosts a Magnificent Seven

l-r: Jonathan Davis, Susan Greenberg, Kevin Fitz-Gerald, Bernadine Blaha, Judith Farmer,
Gernot Wolfgang (composer), Amy Jo Rhine, Sérgio Coelho.


Los Angeles Wind Sextet play Blumer, Ligeti, Poulenc, Schubert, Wolfgang, Schubert, and Falla

With seven performers playing seven works artfully distributed across its two halves, the penultimate recital in the 10th anniversary season of the uniquely convivial Mason House Concert series fielded as much variety in repertoire and instrumental resources as one could wish for in a single evening, and all introduced with her usual wit by Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano (right).

The seven players comprised the six members of the Los Angeles Wind Sextet—Susan Greenberg, flute; Jonathan Davis, oboe; Sérgio Coelho, clarinet; Amy Jo Rhine, horn; Judith Farmer, bassoon; and Kevin Fitz-Gerald, piano—together with the Canadian pianist Bernadine Blaha, who joined Mr. Fitz-Gerald in the second half in two pieces for piano four-hands.

Todd Mason.
While that second half included no fewer than three “lollipops” (to use the term appropriated by the late great Sir Thomas Beecham) the first half comprised two more substantial works, the first of which in particular I suspect was unfamiliar to most if not all of the capacity audience gathered in composer host Todd Mason’s state-of-the-art living-room-into-concert-room conversion in West LA. And while each was a product of the 20th century, they were as different from each other as could be imagined—the one comfortably Romantic, the other fiercely Modernistic.

First up was the Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, Op. 45 written in 1921 by Theodor Blumer (1881-1964), well known in his day as a conductor but now almost entirely forgotten as a composer. Subtitled “Originalthema mit Veranderungen,” Blumer’s Sextet could very well function as an introduction for novice listeners to theme-and-variations as a musical form, being one of those sets where the theme is not only strongly shaped but remains clearly discernible in its variations—unlike some that leave you scratching your head as to where on earth the tune’s gone.

Theodor Blumer.
Blumer’s theme—first heard on Ms. Greenberg’s flute—is amiable, expansive and immediate. After the first half’s marked repeat, the much longer second half comprises a miniature development (with the theme spread around the five winds), and then a recapitulation in which the main melody transfers to the horn.

Listeners are kept comfortably on track in each of the succeeding variations by their sticking to this structure, though Blumer straightaway broadens textural variety and expressive range by allotting Variation 1 to the piano alone, which had been silent during the statement of the theme. Variation 1 is dubbed “Improvisation,” which exactly suited the wayward delicacy of the piano writing and Mr. Fitz-Gerald’s playing.

Indeed, each variation has a subtitle that signals its nature. All six instruments share the carefree dance of Variation 2Capriccio,” while in Variation 3Pastorale” the winds enter sequentially over tranquil, reflective piano chords. In the expert hands of these players Variation 4Slavischer Tanz” was a merry whirl and then, over Debussyan keyboard ripples, Ms. Rhine’s horn intoned Variation 5Romanze,” the sentimental heart of the work. Variation 6Humoreske” was mostly jaunty tiptoeing, before all concerned let rip in the dazzling contrapuntal Finale, marked Lebhaft, sehr locker (Lively, very relaxed).

György Ligeti.
Unlike the forgotten Blumer, György Ligeti (1923-2006) is still a relatively familiar composer—an influential avant-gardist whose work, however outré sometimes in inspiration, remains vivid and communicative, often with a mordant sense of humor. This was evident in his Six Bagatelles for Woodwind Quintet, which he extracted in 1953 from his piano cycle Musica ricercata.

Across their overall fast-slow-fast-fast-slow-fast sequence, the Bagatelles deliver a virtuoso work-out for each of the five players, with extremes of dynamic, pace, and pitch constantly deployed. All this was delivered with maximum commitment and intensity by the LA Wind Sextet, with Ms. Greenberg’s flute (switching sometimes to piccolo) or Ms. Rhine’s horn often taking the expressive lead.

After the interval the wind players had a breather while Mr. Fitz-Gerald and Ms. Blaha (above) played the two pieces for piano four-hands. Poulenc’s Sonate pour piano à quatre mains FP 8, written in June 1918 when he was not yet 20, is brief even by the composer’s usual standards of concision, with its three movements all over within six minutes or so.

Francis Poulenc.
Though Dr. Brown-Montesano had noted in her pre-concert talk that in 19th century domestic music-making the four-hands medium was particularly useful for discreet romantic interaction, Poulenc’s Sonate affords precious little opportunity for this, its first and last movements being mostly concerned with jagged, insistent rhythms and quicksilver figuration. Fitz-Gerald and Blaha dispatched all this with vigor and élan, though to me their way with the second movement, entitled Rustique and marked Naif et Lent, seemed a little matter-of-fact.

Their other joint contribution was the first of the evening’s “lollipops.” Schubert’s Marche Militaire No. 1 in D major, Op. 51 (D. 733) No. 1, is definitely one of those “oh, so that’s what that is!” tunes, but on this occasion it came liberally and unexpectedly garnished.

In 1974 the prolific and long-lived English composer John Gardner (left) produced a version of the march that in four minutes or thereabouts cleverly weaves in numerous musical quotes, from Colonel Bogey to Eine Kleine Nachtmusik to Beethoven’s Ninth. If you want to share the fun that set the Mason House audience laughing, go to YouTube here (and to sample Gardner’s own impressive music, try the first movement from his Symphony No. 1).

This cornucopian program of goodies even fielded a living composer in the person of Gernot Wolfgang, who was indeed present for the performance of his Ghost Train for flute, bassoon and piano. This was commissioned in 2013 by the concert series Chamber Music Palisades, and brought CMP’s Artistic Director Susan Greenberg back to the platform, together with Ms. Farmer and Mr. Fitz-Gerald.

Gernot Wolfgang (right) is a prolific composer of both jazz and concert works, and Ghost Train has its feet in both camps; the title references the jazz technique of “ghost notes”—softer and played with less emphasis than others in a phrase. The work’s exploratory propulsiveness across its sectional, 11-minute span made it an intriguing listen that invited re-hearings.

Finally came the other two “lollipops,” bringing back the LA Wind Sextet's full muster. Emmanuel Chabrier’s orchestral rhapsody España exists in numerous transcriptions, but here I did feel that the loss of its kaleidoscopic color, the percussion-tinged rhythms, and warmth of its main theme on horns and cellos, was not altogther compensated by the pungency and clarity of winds plus piano.

Manuel de Falla.
On the other hand, these instruments felt idiomatically appropriate for the Ritual Fire Dance from Manuel de Falla’s 1915 ballet El amor brujo (Bewitched Love), in no way under-serving its tremolando shudders and the brilliant ferocity of its main theme. As in the orchestral original, this was played on the oboe, Mr. Davis (as first amongst six expert equals) giving it all the sinuous charm plus hint of menace that it needs.

Altogether this was another memorable feast at the Mason House, and not only aural but also of comestibles, thanks to Ethel Phipps’ wonderful catering. The last concert in the series, and already sold out, will bring the Zelter String Quartet on Saturday May 11 to play Beethoven’s and Korngold’s Quartets Nos. 6 and 2 respectively, as well as Todd Mason’s own Second String Quartet


Mason House Concert, 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, CA 90066, 6:00 p.m., Saturday, April 20, 2024.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Blumer: Superstock; Ligeti, Poulenc, Falla: Wikimedia Commons; John Gardner: composer website; Gernot Wolfgang: composer website.

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Friday, March 29, 2024

“Bruckner Birthday Brilliance” at Santa Clarita

Bruckner in 1889: portrait in oils by Ferry Bératon.


Bruckner, celebrating 200 years: Santa Clarita Master Chorale, Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center

This year marks the bicentenary (on September 4, to be exact) of the birth of the great Austrian symphonist Anton Bruckner, and so in southern California we keenly look forward to a plethora of performances of his works. Sorry… just kidding. There seems to be not a note of Bruckner, for example, in the LA Philharmonic’s 2024-2025 season (though that still finds space for yet another *yawn* "Mahler Grooves Festival"). All of which leaves just the Long Beach Symphony to fly Bruckner's symphonic flag in this part of the world, with its keenly awaited perfomance of Symphony No. 4 on June 1.

Given this, one might expect even less attention to Bruckner's choral works, were it not that Artistic Director Allan Robert Petker (left) and his hugely enterprising Santa Clarita Master Chorale have already—on Saturday, March 16, in the snug main auditorium of Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center—done the master of Linz and St. Florian proud, and not just with a token inclusion of one piece in an otherwise mixed program, but an entire evening devoted to him—“Bruckner Birthday Brilliance” indeed.

This was an object-lesson in making the most of limited resources. Petker met head on the challenge of presenting Bruckner’s choral output at its most attention-grabbing by opening with his Te Deum in C major WAB 45, drafted while finalizing his Sixth Symphony (1879-1881) but only completed in 1884 after the Seventh Symphony (1881-1883) was finished, making it the sole large-scale choral/orchestral work from Bruckner’s symphonic maturity.

The Te Deum is scored for soprano, alto, tenor and bass soloists, chorus, a normally-constituted but still large symphony orchestra, and organ (ad lib). Constrained by financial, logistical, and voice/instrument balance concerns, Mr. Petker presented the work with a very small band of just 10 string players, the full specified wind section of pairs of flutes, oboes, clarinets and bassoons, a single pair of horns and no other brass, and timpani.

But even with such reduced forces, the elemental power of Bruckner’s fortissimo opening—a falling ostinato on strings against a sustained chord in all the winds—still had remarkable impact in the relatively small hall. Similarly, when in the second measure the 60-strong chorus fervently seized their opening on one of the few straightforwardly simple unisons in the whole work, one barely registered the absence of trumpets, trombones and tuba. Already it was clear that this approach was viable.

The first page of Bruckner's manuscript of his Te Deum.
If I had any quibble about the performance of the Te Deum, it concerned the solo parts. The work is divided into five sections wherein the soprano, alto and tenor sing briefly as a trio in I; in II and IV the tenor takes the lead before the other three join in; III is for chorus only; and in V all four again contribute. Despite each section being headed with the first few words of its text, and having concluding double bar lines, the way each ends shows clearly that Bruckner intended the work to be essentially continuous.

In this performance, instead of the same four soloists throughout, the joy was spread by changing the team for each section, so that overall three sopranos, two altos, two tenors and two basses were featured. Though the changeovers—with each team retreating back to the choir ranks and the next coming forward—were carried out quickly and efficiently, there were inevitable breaks in that continuity, with the shortest sections, II and III, in particular seeming over almost as soon as they had begun, with their conclusions left hanging.

Apart from this one cavil, the performance of the Te Deum was confident and cogent, with the choir equally projecting Bruckner’s great climaxes forcefully and getting to grips with his often complex counterpoint and unpredictable harmonic shifts; as ever, the quotations from the Seventh Symphony’s Adagio in the final In te, Domine, speravi section were strikingly eloquent.

Bruckner in 1854.
The remainder of the first half comprised three of Bruckner’s unaccompanied motets, but in addition took on something of the character of a genial lecture-recital. Before each motet, choir soprano and program annotator Brenda Hunten came forward to deliver brief accounts of milestones and domestic episodes in his (sometimes quirky) personal life, and then Maestro Petker talked about the composer's artistic development and specifically the piece to follow. First of the three motets to be sung was the brief but rapturously beautiful Locus iste, WAB 23 (1869) with its echoes of Mozart’s Ave verum corpus.

Next was Ave Maria, of which Bruckner composed three settings, all in the key of F major. The first (WAB 5), dating from 1856 and scored for two soloists, chorus, cello, and organ, shows him not yet arrived at his full individuality, while the last of the three (WAB 7), though written in 1882 and full of harmonies and progressions that characterize Bruckner’s mature style, is for a single alto voice with organ. Thus for this concert the second setting, WAB 6, written in 1861 for seven-part choir, selected itself, and in its limpid serenity maintained the mood established by the Locus iste. Last, but far from least, came the somewhat longer and more grandly contemplative Os justi, WAB 30 (1879).

Bruckner in 1868.
In the second half Maestro Petker and the Santa Clarita Master Chorale presented a single work, Bruckner’s Mass No. 2 in E minor, WAB 27 (1866). He actually wrote four full Mass settings, but each of the other three—the Missa Solemnis in B-flat minor, WAB 29 (1854), the Mass No. 1 in D minor, WAB 26 (1864), and Mass No. 3 in F minor, WAB 28 (1868)—is scored for four soloists, chorus, orchestra, and organ.

Mass No. 2, however, utilizes eight-part mixed choir with no soloists, plus winds and brass only (2 oboes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons, 4 horns, 2 trumpets and 3 trombones). Bruckner composed it at the request of the Bishop of Linz for the dedication of a chapel in the city’s new cathedral, but revised it in 1869, 1876, and 1882: this final version is the one normally performed, as was the case here.

Bruckner's manuscript dedication of the Mass in E minor.
In the context of this program, the work's austere and timeless spirituality provided a far stronger expressive contrast to the jubilant Te Deum than any of the other Mass settings would have done, though similar logistical and audible balance factors also applied here. In the absence of brass instruments apart from the pair of horns, Petker’s solution was to rework the accompaniment for the strings and winds used in his account of the Te Deum.

While hard-line Bruckner purists would doubtless disapprove, in the fairly small Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center auditorium the performance had considerable conviction, aided by virtually vibrato-free playing from the strings. It would be idle to deny, though, that—particularly at the fastish speeds which the hall's quite dry acoustic prompted—some of the Mass in E minor’s intrinsic quasi-archaic grandeur was diminished.

All in all, this was a splendid showcase both for a skilled and committed choir and its imaginative Artistic Director, and an implicit finger-wag to other southern Californian performing bodies who, so far, seem to have shown no interest in celebrating the 200th anniversary of one who was not only one of the greatest 19th century symphonists but also a master composer for choral forces. 

The Santa Clarita Master Chorale at a previous concert in the Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center.

Santa Clarita Master Chorale, Santa Clarita Performing Arts Center, Saturday March 16 2024, 7 p.m.
Images: The performers: Kimberly Ayers; Bruckner: Wikimedia Commons (1889), London Symphony Orchestra (1854), StadtMuseum, Linz (1868); Te Deum manuscript: IMSLP; Mass in E minor dedication: Wikimedia Commons.

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Sunday, March 24, 2024

Mahler 5, Haydn, and Gabriela Ortiz at Pacific Symphony

The Pacific Symphony Orchestra, at very full strength, playing Mahler's Fifth Symphony under
guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto.


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

For the second time in under a week, we had a SoCal concert featuring an unusually long main work—but not quite long enough to fill the entire evening, and so bringing the challenge of how to populate a 25-30 minute first half. On Saturday, March 9, in Long Beach it was Brahms’ Ein deutsches Requiem with two well-chosen companion pieces (reviewed here); the following Thursday in Costa Mesa the Pacific Symphony Orchestra under guest conductor Carlos Miguel Prieto (left) gave us Mahler’s Symphony No. 5 in C-sharp minor, plus…?

The mighty Hoboken catalog of all the works by or attributed to Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) lists no fewer than six cello concertos but of these, two are deemed lost and two more labeled “spurious,” leaving just two actually surviving and performable—and even they had to wait until mid-20th century to be authenticated through the discovery of original manuscripts.

Joseph Haydn, c. 1770.
Haydn’s Cello Concerto 1 in C major, Hob. VIIb/1, composed between 1761 and 1765 for a star cellist in the court orchestra of his employer, Prince Nikolaus Esterházy, only resurfaced in 1961, but since then has become well established in the repertoire. Here it filled most of the available time in the first half, played by the young American cellist Sterling Elliott.

Given that the concerto is only scored for pairs of oboes and horns, the Pacific Symphony’s string strength was pared right down to 6-6-4-3-2, but with a spacious though strongly propulsive forward response to the initial Moderato marking, it felt like a “big” performance from the outset, within which Mr. Elliott’s playing was full of nuance, with singing tone, plenty of dynamic shading, and fleet as a gull riding thermals when needed.

Sterling Elliott.
The Adagio, notably slow even for that marking, was hushed and intimate, with the soloist’s tone reduced to the slenderest of threads at times, while the Allegro molto finale scurried deliciously, with dynamic contrasts sharply observed, and Mr. Elliott’s response as fabulously crisp as his playing in the slow movement had been tender. After a standing ovation, he came back for an encore, Julie-O, by Mark Summer (b.1958).

This concerto by itself would have been a perfectly decent first-half filler for a work as massive as Mahler 5, but Señor Prieta added a five-minute opener, Kauyumari by Gabriela Ortiz (b. 1964), which had been commissioned in 2021 by the LA Philharmonic for its reopening after Covid.

Gabriela Ortiz.
Freighted with native Mexican symbolism and connotations (Kauyumari means “blue deer,” a kind of spiritual guide), it opens atmospherically with distant trumpets against tam-tam strokes, but then devolves into constant repetition of a fast, syncopated Huichol melody, which with much textural elaboration builds to a frenetic climax.

In his opening remarks, Señor Prieta likened it to Ravel’s Boléro, but to my ears, it had more in common with Chávez’s Sinfonía India. Ultimately, however, it had neither the time-obliterating hypnotic quality of the former nor the hieratic grandeur and melodic memorability of the latter: a short, sharp, skillfully wrought occasional piece, delivered with whiplash response by the Pacific Symphony but as forgettable as it was easy on the ear.

The appearance of any symphony by Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in a present-day concert program always takes me back to post-war Britain when, for a nascent music-lover with a taste for exotic and ambitious rarities, getting to hear any one of them, live or on the radio, was a treasurable once-in-a-blue-moon event. How times have changed! Now Mahler is so ubiquitous that the challenge for any performers is to somehow get beyond over-familiarity and re-ignite some of that sense of specialness.

Portrait of Mahler in 1902, by Emil Orlik.
However, the music itself is on their side. For those not allergic to works so overtly emotional and dramatic, each Mahler symphony charts its own specific and compelling journey, and the Fifth (1901-1902), the first of them to have no connection to the explicitly picturesque Wunderhorn world that permeates the earlier ones, is no exception. Across its unique three-part, five-movement structure it travels as far as any, from the peremptory trumpet-calls that open the first movement Trauermarsch (here delivered with snap-to-attention urgency by Tony Ellis) to the cloudless jubilation that ends the Rondo-Finale.

Though it’s neither scored for quite such huge forces nor is as long in duration as some of its fellows, the Fifth Symphony is, apart from the idyllic oasis of its fourth movement Adagietto, unremittingly turbulent and complex (indeed it is the longest of all of them in terms of measure count, a formidable 2704 bars) and remains a demanding, even exhausting, challenge to any orchestra, however skilled.

After that opening trumpet solo, the impact of the first fortissimo tutti before the funeral march gets properly under way, played by this great orchestra in the gorgeous Segerstrom Concert Hall acoustic, threatened to blow the fuse on any critical response to the performance as such, leaving one just reveling, ears agape, in the sheer beauty of the sound. And indeed, in terms of pacing, ensemble, dynamics, and grasp of structure, Señor Prieta and the Pacific Symphony seemed to me to nail the first movement.

Excellent too was the way they moved with only the briefest of pauses onto the second movement, or other half of Part 1 of the symphony, fully responding to its Stürmisch bewegt, mit größter Vehemenz (Moving stormily, with the greatest vehemence) marking. Later, Prieta’s way with the ländler second theme was richly expressive but never exaggerated.

However, when the great chorale erupted towards the end of the movement (marked by Mahler Höhepunkt (Climax) just so you don’t miss it!) it was, arguably, just a little too long-drawn and epically magnificent. After all, the movement does then collapse to a stuttering, exhausted end, and the greatest performances here do hold something back and convey by some alchemy that however triumphant the moment seems, it’s essentially precarious.

The centerpiece of Mahler 5, and comprising the whole of its Part 2, is the third movement Scherzo. It’s marked Kraftig nicht zu schnell (Strong, not too fast), and again Maestro Prieta got the speed, and the emphasis, just right. After an opening up-and-down fanfare by four horns, a fifth horn (labeled by Mahler Corno obligato) leads off the weighty dance revels; this Principal Keith Popejoy (left) delivered with robust fruitiness, standing up for extra prominence.

One past commentator labeled this movement a “symphonic ‘parody-Ländler’,” and for most of its length it is indeed a swirling, sonata-form dance hybrid rivaling Ravel’s La valse in its off-kilter savagery, scale, and textural complexity—and in this performance it was played with panache and relish to the hilt by the Pacific Symphony. But in the heart of the development the tumult draws aside for an extended solo by the Corno obligato; this was given a golden sunset aura by Mr. Popejoy (who oddly remained standing for the whole of the movement, even though there are considerable stretches where the Corno obligato does not play).

Mahler's composing hut at Maiernigg,
where he wrote the Fifth Symphony.
However… normally, this mighty scherzo lasts 17-18 minutes, but in Señor Prieta’s interpretation it stretched to around 20, due to what felt like an overly studied and drawn-out account of some of the slower passages, including the long, pizzicato-inflected lead back to the main action after the horn solo. This pulled the thread of continuity dangerously close to breaking-point, but was saved by the pinpoint precision of the Pacific Symphony strings and the eloquence of the woodwind and horn lines above.

This seeming self-indulgence led to concern that the famous Adagietto—the first of the two movements that with the Rondo-Finale comprise the symphony’s Part 3—would be an over-extended snooze-fest, but in the event Prieta’s tempo was once more ideal, bringing the movement in at around the nine-minute mark and keeping the music moving while the Pacific Symphony’s strings and harp (Michelle Temple) delivered it with melting eloquence and sensitivity.

Mahler marks attacca at the link between the Adagietto and Rondo-Finale, so that there’s no break between the former’s long fade to pppp (and yes, the Pacific Symphony strings managed even that extreme marking!) and the latter’s opening sustained horn note, by Mr. Popejoy now relieved of his Corno obligato label and seated. (This continuity is additionally useful now, so that tendencies towards inter-movement applause for the only part of this symphony that everyone knows is always rendered still-born.)

The Rondo-Finale proved to be the coping-stone on what was overall an extremely fine performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony. After some built-in hesitancies, he marks the opening of the movement’s main body Allegro giocoso and Frisch (fresh), and Maestro Prieta established just the right mixture of the wide-eyed bucolic and the businesslike.

As the movement progressed he navigated its many discursions without losing grasp of the main thread, with the orchestra seemingly tireless in its articulation of Mahler’s relentless textural complexity so that the music continually danced. Maybe when the final repetition of the second-movement chorale arrived, juiced up by cascading strings, the massed brass showed the smallest signs of fatigue, but who could blame them? Certainly none of the roaringly appreciative audience, showing yet again how Mahler continues to beguile and enthuse 21st-century listeners. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday March 14, 2024, 8 p.m.
Images: The performance: Doug Gifford; Haydn, Mahler, and Mahler's hut: Wikimedia Commons; Gabriela Ortiz: Composer website.

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Friday, March 22, 2024

PLAY/WRITE CD Looks Toward a Musical Future


Planet M Records, Seattle


Composer and violist extraordinaire Melia Watras seems limitless in her creativity, constantly generating new and unique material. Her new CD album, PLAY/WRITE, showcases her many facets as both a writer and performer of new music. Always innovative, the Seattle-based Watras utilizes her partnerships with writers, poets and other composers and musicians to portray the joy that is generated when words and music coalesce. The entire effect is one of spirituality and introspection that enables the listener at once to concentrate deeply, yet take their consciousness to a meditative level.

Included in this joint effort are luminaries of the Seattle music world: Sheila Daniels, narrator; Leilehua Lanzilotti, composer; Rachel Lee Priday, violin; Michael Jinsoo Lim, violin; Herbert Woodward Martin, voice/poet; Valérie Muzzolini, harp; James Pritchett, writer; David Alexander Rahbee, conductor; Carrie Henneman Shaw, voice; Frances White, composer; and the Brazen butterfly ensemble.

Melia Watras

The CD is “a reflection of my work as a violist and a composer (one who wields both bow and pen!) and the joy that exists in the overlap between words and music,” says Watras.

All of the compositions, those covered here and others that appear on the CD, are well thought out, beautifully performed and show a great deal of understanding of the nature of the instruments and the human voice, both by the composer and by the artists. A number of pieces are World Premiere Recordings.  

5 Poems of Herbert Woodward Martin for narrator, violin and viola (2021) stems from the composer’s long-standing relationship with poet and scholar Martin, an associate of her father. Thus, Song: An Endless Flight for narrator, violin and viola has special significance for Watras. Her setting of this poem and others of Martin evokes a bright, optimistically sunny outlook, with a perfect balance between the words and the obbligato-like violin and viola: light, airy, and pleasant to listen to, the piece evokes sunniness and pleasant meditations.

Michael Jinsoo Lim
Herbert Woodward Martin
Watras introduces A brazen butterfly alights (2021) with a monologue of great depth to which is added harp and other strings. A fairy-like fantasy, it is reminiscent of Ravel’s Introduction and Allegro in its orchestration and atmosphere. The harp effects are striking and beautifully played. Another Watras composition, Echo, features a cadenza-like violin solo that gently transports the listener to other worlds with its improvisatory character and captures the essence of what makes the violin the most multifaceted of instruments.

Roses are the theme for As night falls for violin, viola narrator and electronic sound (2012) by Frances White and James Pritchett. Written for Watras and her violinist husband Michael Jinsoo Lim, the piece stands out for its captivating ambiance describing a charming and unique love story told from the woman’s point of view. The dialogue is interspersed with arpeggios that evoke the ever-changing nature of relationships and morphs into a background for the narrator’s introspection, along with the echoes of the male voice and crashing surf.

The multitalented Lim wrote the poem that is the basis for Weeping Pendula (2021) for voice and loop pedal:

Weeping Pendula 
Reaching to the ground 
Asking to be found. 
Casting penumbra, 
Waiting to be crowned.

The music Watras writes for this poem is otherworldly; minimalist, yet full of special vocal effects that take the listener on a journey to a far-off place.

Carrie Henneman Shaw, Michael Jinsoo Lim, Melia Watras

The title of Native Hawaiian composer/sound artist Leilehua Lanzilotti’s to be two for violin and viola (2021), also written for Watras and Lim, is taken from the book by philosopher/linguist Luce Ingaray. The instruments utilize fluttering, strumming and arpeggiated passages to create an atmosphere that reveals a duality between mysticism and reality. Ingaray writes:

“Thanks to perception, we can become, the one for the other, a bridge towards a becoming which is yours, mine, and ours…While I become me, I remember you.”

A 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Music finalist, Lanzilotti uses what is called “radical indigenous contemporaneity” to explore new paths in timbre. As the finale to the entire collection, the piece ends with an arpeggiated passage on open strings, trailing off into the beyond.

Watras and her colleagues have created an unusual spectrum with PLAY/WRITE. There is much to unpack here in the way of unique sounds, colors and vibrations, giving the listener insight into musical possibilities that look into the future. 


Photo credits: Michelle Smith-Lewis

 Erica can be reached at: [email protected]