Wednesday, December 29, 2010

A New Year's SALUTE TO VIENNA Coming to a Theater Near You!

Preview by Rodney Punt

New Year’s quiz: What are the most popular classical music telecasts of all time? (Hint: The late Walter Cronkite announced them in recent years on PBS.)

If you guessed the Vienna Philharmonic New Year's Concerts (Neujahrskonzert) you are right. With their cornucopia of European waltzes, polkas and gallops beamed around the world from Austria’s famed Musikverein concert hall, they have been a fixture on TV since 1959, and are seen by 1.3 billion hung-over folks every New Year’s Day, along with a few sober ones in Utah.

If the Rose Parade hasn’t shaken your day-after-the-night-before blues, then the “Waltz-King” Johann Strauss Jr.’s Artist's Life waltz or his Leichtes Blut polka could be just the codas needed to cap a long holiday season.

You may have watched that New Year's PBS show year after year, as I have, and developed a craving to see it live. Forget Vienna’s version; it’s too far to travel, and anyway only a select few of Austria’s elite can attend, usually only on a legacy basis and with tickets running an astronomical $2,000 each.

Good news for Viennese-waltz junkies: there is at least one authentic live version of the Neujahrskonzert not that far from home for most North Americans, with prices to fit all budgets and starting at $42. Under the banner of SALUTE TO VIENNA a series of them are held in twenty-two locations at concert halls throughout the USA and Canada on January 1 to 3. (See schedule for locations and tickets.)

Three of those performances will be in Southern California venues - in San Diego, Orange County and Los Angeles. I’ll be attending the one this Sunday at L.A.'s Walt Disney Concert Hall. It’s the sixth visit to the Disney for the production, masterminded by the Hungarian-turned-Canadian impresario Attila Glatz (love that name!) and his company. They have by now perfected a snazzy format for the infectiously light-hearted Viennese musical extravaganza.

Featured are dance routines and operetta excerpts that even the Musikverein's strictly orchestral performances don’t incorporate. The new Southern California cast this year includes conductor Mika Eichenholz with the 75-member Strauss Symphony of America, a couple of stylish Viennese singers (soprano Patricia Nessy and tenor Alexandru Badea) and members of the Vienna City Ballet.

I spoke to Mr. Glatz by phone from his Toronto office, and he shared some inside info on the program, which will - not surprisingly - have a lot of Johann Strauss Jr. (including selections from Gypsy Baron and Die Fledermaus) and the less known Emmerich Kálmán (Countess Maritza and Gypsy Princess). Franz Lehár's Land of Smiles will complement these, and a polka by a talented brother, Josef, will keep the Strauss family brand on top. I can't share the encores but you won't fail to know and love them.

SALUTE TO VIENNA is where I get to purge the past year’s cares and annoyances and inoculate myself against those I expect to encounter this coming year.

You might find the sugar-coated musical remedy works wonders for you too.


Disney Hall Performance:

WHEN: Sunday, January 2nd, 2011, 2:30 PM

WHERE: Walt Disney Concert Hall
111 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012

TICKETS: Call Disney box office at 323-850-2000,
or order via Ticket Master: or call 800-982-2787

For more information and other venues: or call 800-545-7807

Above photo: Attila Glatz Concert Productions
Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]

Monday, December 27, 2010

The Friday Phonograph

Joaquin Rodrigo and Pepe Romero:
Emotions Beyond the Notes

by Anne French

"In Rodrigo, by far the most important musical analysis that you can do is not that of a technical musical analysis, but of the spiritual and emotional." Thus does Pepe Romero begin his narration of the amazing and little known story concerning the genesis of Joaquin Rodrigo's perhaps most familiar composition - the adagio from his Concierto de Aranjuez. Rodrigo and Romero appear together in this video, not just to play the music but also to enlighten us about its spirit and emotions. It is not a performance of the work, although excerpts can be heard throughout the narrative, but I guarantee that you will never hear another performance of this incredibly beautiful movement in quite the same way after hearing the human story behind it.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Amahl and The Night Visitors from Intimate Opera of Pasadena

Photo: Jared A. Sayer
Review by Rodney Punt

If you know Intimate Opera of Pasadena, it is probably from its earlier iteration as a kind of singers’ collective that for a decade or more presented excerpts of operas at a bookstore-cum-café in Pasadena’s Old Town district. In this capacity they had proclaimed themselves as unique in Southern California.

In their latest outing, however, they are seeking to change the game by mounting their first full production, Gian Carlo Menotti’s 1951 television opera, Amahl and the Night Visitors, five performances of which were given at the venerable but underutilized Pasadena Playhouse, December 16-19. I caught the opening night of the grander, less intimate future-to-be.

The challenge facing the company is similar to that of child actress Shirley Temple when she reached the awkward teen years; she had to become a starlet after having been a star. Intimate Opera’s first production was mostly successful, despite some wrinkles here and there. The company has made a big step forward, but one that will subject it to comparisons with larger, more seasoned opera companies.

Amahl is probably as good a choice as any for a first production. It is short, accessible, easily staged, vocally undemanding, and has a built-in appeal for the holiday season. Whether the work itself is worthy of a continuing life is a matter of individual taste. Its central character, the crippled Amahl, is just a little too reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ Tiny Tim, and the story's dénouement has the kind of simplicity that wants to be called simple truth.

The production was handsome in a traditional way. John Iacovelli’s pictorial unit set delineates the interior of a mother and child’s humble home somewhere in the path of the Magi’s route to meet and greet a baby of reputed metaphysical promise. Kate Bergh’s costumes were appropriately drab for the home’s occupants and their neighbors and extravagantly opulent for the three Magi who arrive unexpectedly, seeking a night's shelter.

An added bonus for the production was the Playhouse’s rococo interior, which became a natural extension of the fairy-tale atmosphere suggested by the Magi’s colorful gowns, particularly in the sensitive lighting of Jared A. Sayeg. (Think of the jewel-box theater in Ingmar Bergman’s Magic Flute.)

Just as important, the hall’s fine acoustics easily projected the musical contributions of the slender orchestra led by Jeffrey Bernstein, offering the singers a lovely pillow of lyricism to decorate. Conny Mathot’s choreography was well executed by dancer Stephanie Hullar and her male counterparts.

(Nice as it is, the theater was too cold on opening night, and there needs to be a closer collaboration between the Playhouse’s staff and the IOP for smooth operations and audience comfort.)

Stephanie Vlahos’ staging was efficient and the performances she elicited effective, particularly from old pros at the LA Opera like Greg Fedderly, Cedric Berry, and Robin Buck, who traded in their usual comprimario assignments at LAO for the more prominent Magi roles here. Fedderly’s hard-of-hearing Kaspar in particular gave him opportunity, fully seized upon, for droll comic touches.

The Amahl of Caleb Glickman was clear-voiced and likable, if not yet particularly memorable on opening night. LA Opera regular and native Angelino Suzanna Guzmán handled her transformation from a scolding to a desperate mother sensitively. Menotti’s protracted haggle between mother and son over his reporting on the arrival of the mysterious visitors remains as tedious as in other productions of memory.

The variable articulation of the singers made the vocal dialogue, in simple English, difficult to understand, as from Guzmán’s otherwise beautiful and darkly produced mezzo. Even in an opera as straightforward as this, supertitles are advisable. They will become more necessary when IOP produces Madame Butterfly next spring and Rigoletto the year after.

Taking on Amahl in a community setting with no competition from another opera company is a safer risk than the likes of Puccini and Verdi operas, which are regularly produced at grander houses nearby. IOP will of necessity be competing with those larger houses. One of the ways to differentiate itself is to cultivate a loyal, local following.

In that regard, and given the obvious attraction of Amahl for children during the holiday season, it was concerning to see the already smallish Playhouse half empty on opening night, its seats mostly occupied by senior citizens. Where were the children? This was a lost opportunity in marketing. The viability of a producing opera company involves more than just putting on a show. If seats are not sold they should be given away, if for no other reasons than to generate goodwill and cultivate tomorrow’s audiences.

Bookending the opera proper had been a prologue and postlude by actor Malcolm McDowell. He opened with a stentorian reading of Dylan Thomas’ A Child’s Christmas in Wales in the period costume and drawing room of an early twentieth century Welsh gentleman. McDowell returned silently to the stage after the opera’s conclusion to peer out of the same window where his earlier reading had helped conjure the tale. The play-within-a-play conceit worked well enough.

All in all, it was a good start on a long journey of reinvention for Intimate Opera of Pasadena. We wish them well. As Tiny Tim might have said, “May God bless them, everyone.”

Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]

Monday, December 20, 2010

Handel’s Messiah Re-imagined by Mozart

Master Chorale and Gershon shine in performance

Review by Rodney Punt

Ask any professional musician what is the most performed classical work of all time, and chances are they will tell you it is George Frideric Handel’s Messiah. But you’re not home yet. The follow-up question remains: which version?

For well over two centuries, a cottage industry in musicology has sought to identify all the variants. Baroque music was made to order for performance resources available, and tailored for each subsequent occasion. When Messiah became a hit shortly after its premiere in 1742, Handel revived it often, writing new pieces, dropping others, and reassigning solos depending on the talents available. And the variations on the theme of Messiah didn’t stop at the end of the composer’s life.

Take the case of Mozart’s arrangement, which was performed at Disney Hall on Sunday, December 12, by the Master Chorale under the direction of Grant Gershon. In 1789, thirty years after Handel’s death, a well-connected antiquarian music lover in the Austrian court, Baron Gottfried van Swieten, induced a cash-strapped Mozart to “update” Handel’s masterpiece to the new symphonic dimensions of the time. In a year of financial worries, one also notably short on original compositions by the composer, Mozart was only too willing to comply.

What resulted was a Messiah whose refining fires sound like their hell-and-brimstone counterparts in Don Giovanni, composed just a year before. The modern listener finds himself in a stylistic time-warp, with sinewy clarinets and steely flutes, not to mention bassoons, French horns and trombones (most of these instruments perfected well after Handel’s death) augmenting the earlier composer’s strings and accompanying keyboard. Ornamental accents by the wind instruments added exotic colors and the other instruments a richer layering to Handel’s lean scoring.

Baroque purists may have wished they stayed home with an aspirin for their comfort ye's, but for those of us with a sense of musical adventure, the ride was a heady one, with its own unique charms. Mozart’s symphonic concept has certain benefits: it matches in volume the Master Chorale’s large ensemble of 112 richly toned singers and it is in sonic scale with the Disney Hall’s 2,200 seats - all of which, by the way, appeared filled on this evening.

It would be an understatement to declare that Gershon has a way with singing words. Messiah has survived the under-rehearsed interpretation of many a church choir, but to hear this master conductor reveal its choral potential was a joy forever. Take for instance the waltz-like jubilation of “And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed”, the otherworldly hush of “And he shall purify”, and the gleefulness of “For unto us a child is born” – all sounding as freshly articulated by our choristers as if newly minted.

On this evening there would be many more insights in Gershon’s choral word-painting: the ethereal contemplation of “And with his stripes”, emphasizing healing over the usual stabbing stripes; the bouncing wool-balls of “All we like sheep”, with Mozart’s clarinet and flutes reinforcing the Chorale’s depiction of willful and heedless humanity; “His yoke is easy, and His burthen is light” defying the force of gravity like larks ascending; “He hath borne our griefs” in shivering choral dissonances; “He trusted in God” with the sharp accents of betrayal, especially in the words “de-LIV-ered him”; “Lift up your heads” with its question of “Who is the King of glory?” repeated in ever more insistent demands; “Their sound is gone out to the ends of the world” exploding on the word “world” like bursting fireworks; the marcato accents of “Let us break their bonds asunder” sounding like cracking glass shards; and the final “Amen” coda, often anticlimactic in lesser hands, but with Gershon beginning it in hushed mystery and working it inexorably into a magisterial apotheosis.

The Chorale’s soloists came from within its own ranks. All are locally trained Southern California natives, but that is where their similarities ceased. It is perhaps a measure of the ensemble’s accomplishment that it manages such a good blend in full grouping, given the disparities in vocal colorations and execution of its component soloists on this occasion.

Deborah Mayhan’s creamy soprano, with its rapid, fluttery vibrato and nice trill, was well suited to her early angelic annunciations and the later reassurances of “I know that my Redeemer liveth.” She was adequate enough also in the more dramatic passages of the second part to carry the storyline.

Mezzo soprano Tracy Van Fleet’s tone was, on this occasion, dry and nasal, her lack of resonance sounding almost like a falsetto countertenor. With additional pitch and control problems, on perhaps an off night, her renditions of “He was despised” and “O death, where is thy sting?” had insufficient vocal strength and color for dramatic conviction.

Jon Lee Keenan possesses a pleasant tenor voice, but the full resonance of the still young singer has yet to emerge. He handled his rapid passages well, as in “Ev’ry valley shall be exalted”, but the bravura ring needed in arias like “Thou shalt break them” was missing. We can also hold Mozart accountable for miscasting a tenor for the usual soprano in “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion.” The needed brilliance of a high soprano’s coloratura filigree is lost on a tenor. (* See note below)

The most satisfying performance came from bass Steve Pence, whose “But who may abide” was noble in bearing, his “The people that walked in darkness” appropriately dusky and flexible in its wanderings. Pence’s “Why do the nations so furiously rage together?” agitated the depths; his “The trumpet shall sound” stirred the heights.

The performance was a brilliant choral accomplishment by the Master Chorale and music director Grant Gershon. He and his singers have made something of a specialty of this Mozart-accented Messiah, the Chorale having sung it seven years ago with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra at UCLA’s Royce Hall. In those intervening years the ensemble’s vocal sound and interpretive insights have only deepened.

While the Mozart version should not replace Handel’s original smaller-scaled conception as a standard performance practice, this memorable Messiah does give us a rare and intriguing insight into one genius’s homage to another’s enduring masterpiece.


*Note: Subsequent to posting this article, I discovered that our old friend Gottfried Van Swieten was actually responsible for reassigning the solo on "Rejoice greatly" from soprano to tenor. Poor Mozart was only following orders on this one. To learn more of the history of the Mozart arrangement, you may want to visit an interesting article by Teri Noel Towe.

PHOTOS: Ken Hiveley Photography
Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected].

Friday, December 17, 2010

The Friday Phonograph

'Tis the Season for Kings College Choir

by Anne French

Every year the Christmas season brings out the best (and sometimes the worst) in holiday music... from "Jingle Bells" to "The Messiah." But ever since my first encounter with Lessons and Carols from Kings College Choir, Cambridge, this choir and their music have become my benchmark for musical excellence and inspirational awe at this time of year. We are fortunate to have access to many of their recorded services available on YouTube, and I have chosen a lovely rendition of an old Basque carol (ca. 1582), "The Angel Gabriel," as this Friday's pick of the week. The words to the hymn are provided in the pulldown from the video on YouTube. Kings may be back on The Friday Phonograph next week, since it will be Christmas Eve and there is such a wealth of recordings available.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Rigoletto with a Touch of the Surreal

Photo: Robert Millard

Review by Rodney Punt

The current season’s marriage of inconvenience between the budget grinch and a cash-strapped LA Opera proffers some things old, some new, others borrowed or blue. If the current Rigoletto is both old and borrowed, it is at least still effective. First mounted in 1997 in San Francisco, the production lent to Los Angeles was serviceable enough last Sunday to set in motion a fine musical performance.

One of the peculiar alchemies of Verdi’s operas is how potent visual aspects of scenic design and costuming are to the realization of their musical qualities. The composer’s works thrive on color and this Rigoletto was no exception.

Director Mark Lamos and designer Michael Yeargan were reportedly inspired by the work of metaphysical surrealist painter Giorgio De Chirico, who, in addition to the genre’s expected odd angles and precise geometry, imbedded referential imagery in his work that is not part of this production’s scheme. Rather, the set’s overall look is redolent of the tamed surrealism encountered in modernist commercial art of the decades immediately after the Second World War.

What remains of De Chirico’s style in Mark McCullough’s lighting design are hyperreal primary colors imbued with symbolism - red for various guises of love, inky blue for the treacheries of night, powder blue for a daughter’s innocence. Populating and energizing the dated set are Constance Hoffman’s appropriately garish carnival costumes and bizarre masks that swagger hither and yon with the antics of the sybaritic Duke of Mantua’s decadent retinue.

Lamos' movement of the principals advanced dramatic encounters efficiently. Their voices were strong and notably flexible in the large hall, with similar vocal colorations helping to solidify the evening's musical values.

Georgian native George Gagnidze, making his company debut in the title role, sustained with ease the high tessitura of the baritone role through an emotional journey from callous, energetically cynical courtier, to cursed, helpless father. In the process he created a repugnant Rigoletto of genuine pathos.

Sarah Coburn’s sweet-voiced Gilda, gaining in stamina throughout the evening, traversed her own dramatic journey from innocence to despair with riveting grace and dignity. Gianluca Terranova's Duke of Mantua sang like a god of wantonness, breaking his own new ground as a seductive cad. In their entwining love duet of the second act, the two showered the Pavilion with tendrils of sonic perfume.

Bass Daniel Sumegi was memorable in his pungent appearances as the wounded father, Count Monterone, whose curse in the first scene sets the tragic drama in motion. Andrea Silvestrelli's dark bass as the assassin Sparafucile was as unforgiving as Rigoletto's earlier cynic had been cavalier. The other roles were all effectively delivered.

James Conlon’s orchestra was equally a star performer: cohesive within the ranks, its tempos acutely focused on intensifying the action. Balances with singers, including Grant Gershon's crackerjack choristers, were near perfect. With colors sparkling, the third act storm music was calculated to be in razor sharp symmetry with the lighting effects. Whether due to adjustments in the seating of musicians this season or to fully opening the cavernous Chandler Pavilion's pit, the orchestra’s sonic presence is happily growing at each outing.

What struck this listener in Conlon and Company's finely gauged performance was how advanced Verdi's score sounded. Composed in 1850, it was his break-through to full maturity. (Interestingly, Richard Wagner at this time was forming preliminary ideas on the Ring Cycle that would bring his own work to its full flowering.)

While we still hear the um-pa-pa rhythm of "La donna e mobile", it is used here not as a musical crutch but as irony, underscoring the Duke of Mantua's Johnny-one-note narcissism. It is in the music for the tragic father figure of Rigoletto that Verdi formulated his greatest characterization to date, one that makes this work his first immortal masterpiece.

Verdi was to say in his old age that he could compose another Otello, but he would never again approach the greatness of Rigoletto.

Who are we to argue?

Rigoletto runs through December 18 - LA Opera for tickets.
Rodney Punt can be reached at [email protected]

Friday, December 10, 2010

The Friday Phonograph

The Many Voices of a Bach Fugue
Come to Life on Solo Guitar

by Anne French

Whenever I hear guitarist/conductor Angel Romero play the music of Bach, I am tempted to call him the Glenn Gould of the Guitar. This Friday's Phonograph pick - Romero playing the Fugue from Bach's Sonata for Unaccompanied Violin, BWV 1003 - is but one example of that Gouldian touch. Just as Gould was known for bringing out the inner voices of a complex fugue, Romero clearly articulates every voice in this opus. His skillful use of tempo and dynamics produces sharp linear definition; yet through perfectly placed accents and subtle changes in color, the dominant voice is never lost. Finally there is Romero's breathtaking mastery of his instrument that one has come to expect from the world renowned artist. This performance is a real tour de force that is flawlessly executed... a fine beginning to the weekend.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The Friday Phonograph

Glenn Gould and Jaime Laredo
Form Perfect Union with Bach
Sonatas for Violin & Harpsichord

by Anne French

On this first Friday in December, I am happy to present a gift to devoted fans of Glenn Gould everywhere, as he teams up with violinist Jaime Laredo for a veritable feast of Bach sonatas written for violin and harpsichord. The stunning collection of sonatas (there are six in all) was recorded in 1975-1976 and only very recently appeared on YouTube. One individual who personally knew Jaime Laredo told me, "I remember when Jaime and Gould recorded the complete sonatas...I never met Gould, but Jaime said it was some experience to play with hum...I can just imagine...." Yes, "hum" is the appropriate word, as GG's hallmark humming is audible on some selections, but it doesn't detract one bit from this remarkable musical collaboration. It was hard to choose just one, but I finally settled on No. 4 in C minor BWV 1017. Enjoy!