Monday, April 30, 2012

Sublime Schubert: Eschenbach and the LA Phil

Chamber Works, Orchestrated Songs and the C Major Symphony

Review by Rodney Punt

Between the years of 1818 and 1822, composer Franz Schubert, previously a whirlwind of prodigious creativity, experienced a compositional crisis and was unable to complete several large-scale works. Abandoned were four symphonies, a sacred cantata and a quartet. His c
ontracting of syphilis in late 1822 or early 1823 further darkened the composer's outlook but also steeled his resolve with the time left him to reach for the model of Beethoven's monumental achievements.

The LA Phil’s recent "Sublime Schubert" series probed Schubert’s double-track pursuit of vocal and instrumental music coming out of this crisis. Two concerts – one chamber, one orchestral -- complemented the two earlier reviewed song cycles. Musicians from within the orchestra’s ranks, under the banner of the Chamber Music Society, ventured works on an intimate scale for a Tuesday evening installment of the weeklong series.
Schubert identified his String Quartet No. 13 ("Rosamunde") -- written in 1823-4 along with an octet -- as preparatory for the grand symphony he would soon compose. While the quartet's moniker evokes the charming Biedermeier-like incidental music Schubert had just provided for a theatrical play, it's an entirely more serious work, the first of three last quartets and his answer to like works of his older contemporary.

The LA Phil’s musicians caught the quartet’s spirit in a smooth, generally soft-edged rendition that lacked only the assertive flair of long-tenured ensembles. They 
imbued the work’s first movement with a Mozartian mix of grace and melancholy, carried over into both the eponymous Andante and the later Menuetto, and shading darker the bucolic charm of the concluding Allegro.
Schubert’s late Quintet for 2 violins, viola & 2 cellos in C Major, completed only weeks before his death, is considered one of the greatest chamber works ever composed and is a favorite of professional musicians. Its Adagio is often performed at funerals; I heard it as such in the 1998 Vienna memorial for soprano Leonie Rysanek. While acknowledging death’s nearness, however, the work also defies it.
Within another configuration of the LA Phil's musicians, its performance soared to almost symphonic dimensions with rich, full-bodied string sonorities that emphasized life-embracing rather than life-effacing moods. Usually tragic, the Adagio movement sounded in this context almost seraphic. The additional cello's gentle pizzicato set against the sustained quartet strings of the ensemble in that Adagio foreshadows its string bass counterpart in the Schubert C Major Symphony performed later that week. Vivid sonorities in the rustic Scherzo and soulful Trio led to the celebratory embrace of the final Allegretto. It was a splendid outing for the estimable Chamber Music Society project.

Concluding orchestra performances over the weekend showcased both Schubert’s intimate and expansive visions while providing insights into his profound influence over the rest of the century. Taking a cue from the earlier song cycles, conductor Christoph Eschenbach and the LA Phil, with baritone Matthias Goerne, presented nine rarely heard orchestral versions of Schubert’s lieder, including two encores.
Attracted to the composer’s unparalleled songs, later composers arranged them to fit all instrumental sizes from solo piano to full orchestra, advancing Schubert’s standing as the essential harbinger of the Romantic era. While Europe's musical scene divided into two distinct branches of Romanticism – conservative and progressive – both claimed Schubert as the fountainhead. The composer’s larger instrumental works were to come to public attention only sporadically and later.

Often on the opera stage, lieder specialist Goerne was in comfortable and resonant voice for the amped-up sonorities. In turn, Eschenbach and the LA Phil were attentive to his lead. Orchestrations by the era’s A-list master craftsmen included the richly textured “Memnon” of Johannes Brahms; dramatic renditions of “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” and “Erlkönig” by Max Reger (less effective was his elephantine-chiffoned “Im Abendrot”); a delicately textured “Der Wegweiser” from Winterreise and “Tränenregen” from Die schöne Müllerin by a young Anton Webern, and the anonymously arranged “An Silvia”. Encored were "Ständchen” from Schwanengesang and the anthem of all singers, “An die Musik” in arrangements by Webern.

“Gruppe aus dem Tartarus” and especially “Erlkönig” provide enticing glimpses into
Schubert’s potential as a dramatic opera composer, an aspiration thwarted at every turn during his lifetime, but one that would surely have taken hold had he lived long enough. Schubert’s incipient mastery of large orchestral forms would eventually have synchronized with his uncanny ability to characterize the most intimate dramatic moments in his songs. Alas, not enough time was left him.

The Sublime Schubert survey concluded with Eschenbach and the LA Phil's performance of the "Great" Symphony in C Major. It was the product of Schubert's summer 1825 recital tour with his friend and mentor, baritone Michael Vogl. The two traversed the scenic Upper Austria region, known as the Salzkammergut for its thrusting mountains and plunging valleys. Energized by its beauty, Schubert tackled that grand symphony he had long envisioned, writing about it from the village way stations of Gmunden and Gastein. From its opening horn invocation to the ascendant stirrings of its last movement, the symphony breathes the air of this vast natural cathedral. Schubert’s "Sommerreise" (as Roger Norrington dubbed it) is a model of lyric expansiveness, with structural implications that would later be exploited by Schumann, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler.

Eschenbach's approach, as in his piano collaborations with Goerne earlier in the week, emphasized clean lines, broad tempi and emphatic phrasing. His mannered and titanic Luftpausen before downbeats underlined phrases, but after several repetitions flirted with cliché. Pumped up grandiosity in this already pulsing symphony was, by the fourth movement, overkill to Schubert's cosmic conception, overshadowing the work's more lyric moments. The monumental style seemed frozen in old-school aspic. Still, Eschenbach was consistent in his vision and shaped the orchestra's strings into rhythmically sharp attacks, coaxed its woodwinds into lush statements, and let its brass glow with glorious incantations, a few cracks notwithstanding.

The week-long Sublime Schubert, so often dwelling in the night of winter journeys, had concluded in a determined, day-bright C Major.


NOTE: The above photographs were taken by the author on a trip to Austria in September, 2011. They provide some idea of an area Schubert was to find beautiful and inspiring. Top: Schubert Memorial at Gmunden, the town where he composed parts of the "Great" C Major Symphony. Middle top: painted skulls in Hallstatt's church, with the date of 1825 on a memorial; it happens also to have been the year Schubert visited the Salzkammergut region and composed his grand symphony. Middle bottom: the lakeside village of Hallstatt, where the tradition of painting skulls originated. Bottom: The Salzkammergut alpine mountains, mentioned by Schubert in such glowing terms in a letter to his brother Ferdinand.


Tuesday, April 17, 2012, 8:00PM

Walt Disney Concert Hall, 
Los Angeles, CA 
Schubert: String Quartet No. 13 ("Rosamunde"), D 804
Elizabeth Baker, violin 
Jin Shan Dai, violin 
Benjamin Ullery, viola 
Jason Lippmann, cello

Schubert: Quintet for 2 violins, viola, 2 cellos in C major, D 956
Gloria Lum & 
Jonathan Karoly, cello; 
Nathan Cole & 
Akiko Tarumoto, violin; 
Ingrid Hutman, viola 

Friday, April 20, 2012, 8:00PM 
Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles, CA 
Los Angeles Philharmonic, Christoph Eschenbach, conductor, Matthias Goerne, baritone
Schubert: Orchestrated Songs
An Silvia, D 891 (anonymous orchestration)
Memnon, D 541 (orch. Johannes Brahms)

Gruppe aus dem Tartarus, D 583 (orch. Max Reger)
Der Wegweiser, D 911, No. 20 (from Winterreise) (orch. Anton Webern)

Im Abendrot, D 799 (orch. Max Reger) 
Tränenregen, D 795, No. 10 (from Die schöne Müllerin) (orch. Anton Webern)
Erlkönig, D 328 (orch. Max Reger)
Ständchen, D 957, No. 4 (from Schwanengesang, orch. Anton Webern) as encore 
An die Musik, D 547 (orch. Anton Webern) as encore 
Schubert: Symphony No. 9 in C Major,"Great", D 944

Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Friday, April 20, 2012

Goerne and Eschenbach in Schubert's Sublimely Sad Songs

Review by Rodney Punt

As the oft-twined saints Peter and Paul stand primus inter pares amongst their fellow apostles, so stand Franz Schubert’s twin song cycles Die schöne Müllerin and Winterreise beside similar works by other composers.

The towering achievements of the two song cycles, along with Schubert’s Schwanengesang, not to mention the hundreds of other songs he composed, were to elevate the heretofore lowly art song ("Lied" in German)  from its backwater eddy to a place in the mainstream of musical expression, a feat reminiscent of the above apostles galvanizing their once ragtag cult into a world religion.

Hearing both cycles in the span of three days was a rare luxury for lovers of song in Los Angeles, and it was provided by the LA Phil’s generous allocation of a full week to Schubert’s works in their series, Sublime Schubert. Guest headliners have been eminent German baritone Matthias Goerne and pianist-conductor Christoph Eschenbach. As a singer and piano duo, they performed Die schöne Müllerin this past Monday and Winterreise on Wednesday. Chamber music followed on Tuesday and orchestral music is slated for the weekend.

Composer Franz Schubert and his poet for both song cycles, Wilhelm Müller, were almost exact contemporaries who never met and who both died young. Their collaborations trace two storylines of a similar pattern: each involves the rejection of a suitor who had thought his love reciprocated, and when it was not he follows a path to depression and death. But from here the stories diverge.

Die schöne Müllerin has the more traditionally constructed narrative, with four human characters: the protagonist miller’s apprentice, his boss the miller, the latter’s pretty daughter, and a hunter who becomes the boy’s rival. A fifth character is the millstream with whom the boy shares his feelings and into which he eventually commends his body. The singer inhabits the boy’s internal emotional life in distinct chapters: hope, conflict, shocked despair and rapid death. A successful performance will properly gauge each of these episodes. The piano colors the drama with externalized evocations of hiking, rippling brooks, turning mill wheels, bumptious hunting, and finally the rocking of a lullaby.

In sharp contrast, Winterreise has only one real protagonist: a solitary man whose proposal of marriage has been rejected. Its “story” takes place entirely within the mind of this already spurned suitor who is on an inexorable and painfully incremental trek from dejection to despondency to dissolution to death. The piano takes on the role of mirror to the man’s mind, reflecting the emotional territory of its increasingly tormented thoughts. There is no real conflict; the cycle maintains variety by the protagonist’s increasingly ominous interpretations of random imagery he encounters along his bleak, trudging winter’s journey.

Performance history of the two song cycles

From the beginning, performances of these two works have employed different voice-types. Die schöne Müllerin has favored a high voice, often a tenor or lyric baritone of particularly pure intonation. Schubert chose for the work’s premiere the gifted amateur singer Baron Karl von Schönstein, to whom he eventually dedicated the cycle. Contemporary witnesses agree with Schubert’s choice. Since that authoritative precedent, a high lyric voice has most successfully depicted the naive miller boy, with a certain projection of vulnerability appropriate to the role.

By contrast, the first significant protagonist of Winterreise was the operatic baritone Johann Michael Vogl, the singer with whom Schubert has been most closely identified and an artist that the callow composer had earlier idolized on the operatic stage as the fearsome Don Pizarro in Fidelio. It was the dramatic voice of Vogl that premiered songs like ‘Die Allmacht’ and ‘Erlkönig’ (the latter to be performed in an orchestrated version by Goerne with the LA Phil this weekend). Though written in a key appropriate for tenor or high baritone, the cycle is often transposed down for a darker voiced singer.

As established in Schubert's Viennese circle of friends in the 1820's, the above division of labor was generally respected for a century and a half. Still, these two seminal works have been an irresistible magnet for singers of all voice types.

In recent decades, a trend to more overtly dramatize song cycles, especially Winterreise, has led to unconventional performances, including literally dramatized productions like the Winterreise Long Beach Opera produced a few seasons ago and video-dramas like those of mezzo-soprano Brigitte Fassbaender for Image Entertainment and tenor Ian Bostridge for Kultur. Bostridge and pianist Julian Drake gave a concert Winterreise performance two years ago at Royce Hall that was a startlingly odd drama in its own self-absorbed way. While these approaches add novelty to the Schubert song recital, they also sacrifice an element previously considered essential: a dignified reticence that infuses nobility into the suffering of the two protagonists.

Dramatic forays aside, modern-era representatives of the long performing tradition include tenors Peter Schreier, Fritz Wunderlich and Ian Bostridge in compelling versions of Die schöne Müllerin. Also high lyric baritones like Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (one of Goerne’s teachers) and Gérard Souzay. Baritones and basses have generally best realized Winterreise: Hans Hotter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (a switch-hitter between the two song cycles), Hermann Prey, Thomas Quasthoff, Thomas Hampson, and earlier versions from Goerne himself.

Die schöne Müllerin on Monday

The big question going into the two performances this week centered on how Goerne and his piano collaborator, Christoph Eschenbach, would convincingly interpret and perform the two very different song cycles in such close proximity to one another. The short answer: both performances shed light on their respective dramas, but the miller boy met with decidedly mixed results while the rejected suitor in winter was depicted with close to consummate mastery.

Most performances of Die schöne Müllerin clock in at around 65 minutes give or take a couple. Goerne and Eschenbach took a whopping 78½. The extra time had nothing to do with breaks between the twenty songs because they observed none. The cause was slow tempi that restricted the pacing to a crawl; in the last two songs forward momentum almost stopped.

The two performers dramatized every moment in micro-phrases, parsing Schubert’s strophic meters as if they were dissecting an animal, one shaking organ at a time. The duo had also freighted this most tender of musical tragedies with the weight of Shakespearian drama.

Goerne is a big man with a lumberjack’s build. He possesses a fearsome gaze and a hefty middle and lower vocal range that can thunder when called upon. He can also float in doses a uniquely resonant and compelling, if darkish, upper voice and head tone. These qualities serve him well in performances of the crazed Wozzeck on the opera stage and they would be successfully tailored to the rejected and embittered suitor of Schubert’s Winterreise two days later. They would also be appropriately employed in this evening's startling outbursts of animal energy in the minor roles of the burly miller and swaggering hunter.

Overt masculinity, however, is not the trait of the impressionable miller boy, who may have enjoyed his first shave shortly before he meets the boss’s pretty daughter. In the Müller-Schubert conception, the miller lad is full of sunny optimism, uneasy hopes and tender daydreams through the first thirteen songs. Hinting at his insecurities as he wistfully contemplates his girlfriend’s green ribbon in ‘Mit dem grünen Lautenbande’, he is jolted and jilted only in the fourteenth song with the arrival of ‘Der Jäger’, which launches his angry feelings.

Yet Goerne’s characterization of the miller boy had been heavier and darker from much earlier. ‘Halt’, only the third song, was burly if not stentorian. ‘Morgengruss’, taken at a snail’s pace in the manner of a Tristanesque dream, was far too psychologically complicated for a simple miller lad. Perhaps it was the strain from the high tessitura -- Goerne employed sculpted arm and hand movements as if to beckon an elusive lighter voice -- that tinted darker the miller boy's youth and vulnerability until the more comfortable ‘Tränenregen' loosened up the vocal tension. The following ‘Mein’ was sung with a dark coloration more appropriate for the hunter than a pixilated miller boy. All these songs precede 'Der Jäger'.

The question remained whether Goerne’s otherwise generous talents are suitable at this stage in his career to the role of the miller lad. Given unknown factors like the momentary condition of the singer's voice, a single performance cannot answer that question definitively. Yet it was undeniable that the conception of the miller story by Goerne and Eschenbach was by traditional standards heavy and plodding.

Piano collaborator Eschenbach seemed also not in peak form on Monday; perhaps he had not fully accustomed to his instrument. His touch communicated brittleness here and there. And though it remained within acceptable standards, his control was not always the ultimate in artfulness or fluidity. Were the two artists possibly still recuperating from their trip to Los Angeles?

Winterreise on Wednesday

As contrasted with Monday's Die schöne Müllerin, Wednesday’s Winterreise was performed as if by a fresh team from another planet. What they had struggled for but could not achieve on Monday seemed to arrive without excessive energy. The emotional essence of the profound work was captured both in big picture and telling details. Phrasings had plasticity, yet the vision also an organic unity.

The approach as on Monday was to dramatize the cycle -- again it was slow, coming in at 81'40 minutes -- but here it all worked without exaggeration. The old-school practice of letting the music and words carry the load of the drama was blended with the new style of gestural elements and exploring poetic byways for maximum revelation and effect. Not incidentally and unlike on Monday, both performers adhered more closely to Schubert's markings on this outing.

Goerne's voice was in peak form up and down the registers and much more secure technically. His performance felt comfortable and centered. One visual sign of this was his relative lack of hand and arm sculpting and altogether more natural breathing. As a result, his lonely protagonist was surprisingly gentler and more focused than had been the hapless miller boy on Monday.

The lower tessitura preserved Goerne's freshness throughout and left him with enough reserves to handle climactic moments with relative ease, as at the evening's highest reach in the otherworldly 'Die Krähe'. Other highlights: the shuddering quality of 'Gefror'ne Tränen', the gentle rubati in 'Der Lindenbaum', the spooky effects of both piano and voice in 'Irrlicht', the first intimations of death in 'Rast', the quicksilver changes of mood in 'Frühlingstraum', the self-realization of rapid aging in 'Der greise Kopf', the sensation of death as faithful friend in 'Die Krähe', the detachment from life and the living of 'Der Wegweiser', and the almost literal rising of the spirit in the otherwise banal  hurdy-gurdy tune of 'Der Leiermann'.

Eschenbach was at one with his singer. While the pianist’s seventy-two years have left some mark on his finger fluency, he was on this occasion fully in control and finely nuanced. From the perspective of the work's hand-and-glove psychological requirements of the piano with the voice, this was a most gratifying performance.

The Goerne-Brendel Winterreise recital at the Disney in 2004 was on a very high level, but this evening's was one for the ages. It stands among the finest live performances I have heard.


Sublime Schubert
Die schöne Müllerin by Franz Schubert -- Monday, April 16, 8 pm
Winterreise by Franz Schubert -- Wednesday, April 18, at 8 pm

Colburn Celebrity Recital,  Disney Hall, Los Angeles
Matthias Goerne, baritone
Christoph Eschenbach, piano

See LA Opus on Facebook. Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Friday, April 13, 2012

Coming to Disney Hall: Sublime Schubert

LA Phil, Eschenbach, Goerne Perform Music's Lyric Master

By Rodney Punt

Next week, an extraordinary musical series, aptly named Sublime Schubert, comes to Disney Hall, courtesy of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

One of the world’s leading singers, German baritone Matthias Goerne, collaborates with conductor/pianist Christoph Eschenbach, the LA Phil and its chamber musicians in performances of some of Franz Schubert’s greatest masterworks: two song cycles, two chamber pieces, his most ambitious symphony, and seven rarely performed orchestrated versions of his songs.

Franz Schubert, the shy, short-statured composer of little fame outside of his circle of friends in Vienna during his lifetime, was the early nineteenth century’s lyric miracle of music. His influence, after his tragically early death in 1828 at age 31, became an increasingly major force in the musical zeitgeist of Europe for the rest of the century and beyond, even as his works, many of them major masterpieces, only trickled out of their hiding places in dribbles and drabs for decades after the composer’s death.

The two main schools of Central European musical life both claimed Schubert as a source of inspiration. "Classical romantics" like Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms and Dvorák were the first to seize the torch, actively discovering, giving first performances, and preparing his works for collected editions. Just as passionately, "progressives" like Franz Liszt, Hector Berlioz, and even Richard Wagner learned much from him; the first two making instrumental arrangements of Schubert’s works for wider performance. The works of later composers like Anton Bruckner and Gustav Mahler bear clear traces of Schubert’s romantic sensibilities and compositional techniques.

The LA Phil’s Sublime Schubert starts with a Colburn Celebrity Recital performance featuring Goerne, joined by pianist Eschenbach in Schubert’s first great song cycle, Die schöne Müllerin, on Monday, April 16, at 8 pm. Schubert composed the songs of the love-struck miller boy while recovering in hospital from an illness that would claim his life only half a dozen years later. The songs are individually lovely but their cumulative unity made a dramatic impact never before encountered in music.

Tuesday, April 17, at 8 pm, offers a Chamber Music Society performance of the composer’s String Quartet No. 13 (“Rosamunde”), D. 804, and his Quintet in C major for two violins, viola and two cellos, D. 956. The quartet contains one of Schubert's most meltingly charming tunes, while the quintet's profoundly gentle strains are Schubert's valedictory in chamber music. Many musicians value the Quintet as their favorite piece of music.

Goerne and Eschenbach return for a second Colburn Celebrity Recital, Wednesday, April 18, at 8 pm, performing what is widely acknowledged as the greatest song cycle in music, Winterreise. The bitter songs of a rejected lover affected Schubert like none he had composed before. His friends were baffled by their somberness, but Schubert told them he valued these songs over all his others and someday they would come to love them too. And he was right.

Sublime Schubert concludes with a weekend of concerts with Goerne and the LA Phil led by Eschenbach, Friday and Saturday, April 20 and 21, at 8 pm, as well as Sunday, April 22, at 2 pm.

On this extraordinary program are the following orchestrated Schubert songs: “An Silvia,” D. 891 (anonymous orchestration); “Memnon,” D. 541 (orch. Johannes Brahms); “Gruppe aus dem Tartarus,” D. 583 (orch. Max Reger); “Der Wegweiser,” D. 911, No. 20 (from Winterreise) (orch. Anton Webern); “Im Abendrot,” D. 799 (orch. Max Reger); “Tränenregen,” D. 795, No. 10 (from Die schöne Müllerin) (orch. Anton Webern); and “Erlkönig,” D. 328 (orch. Max Reger).

The program concludes with the composer’s propulsive Symphony No. 9 “The Great” in C major. Discovered in the dusty bins of Schubert's brother Ferdinand by the young Robert Schumann, the awestruck composer wrote to Mendelssohn of its "heavenly length" and the latter gave its world premiere in Leipzig in 1839. Its popularity soon grew and its influence can be found in Bruckner, Dvorák and many other composers.

The Sublime Schubert series is a rare opportunity to hear, in a one-week sweep, some of the most lyrically beautiful music ever composed, performed by today's top proponents of Schubert's works.

Don't miss this major event. Ticket information is below.



WHEN: Monday, April 16 – Sunday, April 22, 2012

WHERE: WALT DISNEY CONCERT HALL, 111 S. Grand Avenue, Los Angeles

Subscriptions and single tickets for the Los Angeles Philharmonic’s 2011/12 season at Walt Disney Concert Hall currently available. To purchase, visit, the Walt Disney Concert Hall Box Office or any Ticketmaster outlet.

To order by phone with credit card, call the Walt Disney Concert Hall Box Office at 323.850.2000, or Ticketmaster at 800.745.3000. For more information, call 323.850.2000.


See LA Opus on Facebook. Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Melody. Spurs. Memory.

Songs from America’s West at the Autry National Center

Review by Rodney Punt

The old saying goes, when you play a country song backwards you get BACK
your pick-up truck, your job, your dog and your girlfriend. Which tells us how tediously self-pitying country songs can be when they are played forward. But a precaution is in order: never equate maudlin country with manly cowboy songs.

Cowboys don’t do self-pity, pardner.

Western songs can be sentimental, but they tell their stories stoically: the love of a land, the remoteness of a mountain, determination on a dusty trail, loyalty toward a horse, the strength of prairie women. They evoke mythic tales of round-ups and rustlers and the legends of robbers and renegades. They look life straight in the eye and say: “I’ll take it as is, come what may.”

Pioneers, cattlemen, ranchers, gamblers, painted ladies and gunslingers all shared their songs with each other. They kept memories alive for family, friends and fans, bequeathing to posterity not just the history but also the feel of the Old West. That spirit lives on today in Western songs that retain a love of the land and its restless life, while keeping alive the promise of ever expanding horizons.

On Monday evening a lucky congregation of music lovers, history buffs and Western wannabes gathered in the grand lower foyer of the Autry National Center’s museum building at Griffith Park for an evening of music, poetry, storytelling and film, headlined by popular singer/songwriter Michael Martin Murphey. Rachel Worby, artistic director of the event's producer, MUSE/IQUE, narrated the evening’s musical encounters.

Now in the Western Music Hall of Fame, Murphey is a gifted composer and wordsmith with a pointed, twangy tenor that sings in tune even when his maverick guitar occasionally wanders off the trail. He opened and closed the evening with sing-alongs, kicking off the event with the unofficial anthem of the American West (and official song of Kansas) Home on the Range.

At home on any range (Murphey owns ranches in Wisconsin, Colorado, and Texas) he shared ranch lore in anecdote and song for the rest of the evening. (As a sign of the worldwide popularity of Home on the Range, this writer was once asked to come unprepared onto a stage in Japan and sing an unaccompanied solo of it for a Japanese audience just so they could hear it in "American.")

Five of Murphey’s own songs followed: his homage to the wide-open spaces, Close to the Land (aka America’s Heartland), the humorous ode to cowpokes, Cowboy Logic (“If it’s a fence, mend it, if it’s a dollar bill, spend it”), an idealized mountain lover (“far above the timberland”) in Carolina in the Pines, and a paean to his Old Horse, as much a lament for the obsolescence of the cowboy as a retirement farewell to his horse. He ended his own song set with his biggest hit, Wildfire (“She rides on a pony she named Wildfire, with a whirlwind by her side”). With his songs covered by every Western singer worth his salt, Murphey’s thrusting tempi and epic deliveries on this eve confirmed his secure place as America’s bardic cowboy.

Grammy-winning Bluegrass fiddler Richard Green played his own finely-filigreed Amazing Graces, consisting of variations on the old hymn (with no sign of bleating bagpipes!), performing it on his 13-string violin d’amore, an instrument from the Renaissance that leaves gentle stringy after-sounds, prominently on the fifth degree of the scale.

Both Green and Murphey quietly accompanied a few of the readings to follow, which included poems and stories, most of them by a transplanted English poet named Philip Daughtry. English-born he may be but early on he acculturated to the American West. Daughtry’s expressive and insightful works are the genuine article and elevated the evening’s literary quality several steps up the Rockies.

Golden Globe Winner Wendie Malick read an excerpt from Daughtry’s story, The Centaur's Son, with Murphey’s guitar quietly strumming. Daughtry read his own poem, Mounting the Horse, with a wistful obligato by Greene. (“Take my smell, beast with lips soft as the interior of flowers…. Inside you, I hear a river's tumult, an uncertainty I approach, hearing my heart beat its shaman's drum in a far country.”) Actor Dan Lauria (“The Wonder Years”) then spun the Hopi animistic tale of How the Sun Found the Sky.

In the course of the evening, documentary filmmaker Ginger Kathrens’s film and photo clips of wild horses were streamed on a large screen at the left corner of the impromptu stage area. Author of the book Cloud: Wild Stallion of the Rockies, the Emmy award-winner captured the West’s most graceful animal in tableaux of dramatic action.

Murphey offered for sale a guitar on which he had inscribed the words to Wildfire, the proceeds to benefit his own Fiona Rose Murphey Foundation and some residential foster care facilities sponsored by the evening’s presenter, MUSE/IQUE. It was purchased for $6,000 in an on-the-spot auction.

The evening closed with another sing-along, of the poignant Happy Trails written by Dale Evans shortly after the early death of her daughter. Baby boomers still hear the voices of Dale and Roy Rogers ringing in their ears from the TV days of their youths, even if few of them ever knew what instigated this elegiac song. With its tragic back-story, the bittersweet Happy Trails smiles through its tears and never gives in to self-pity. It is the very essence of the cowboy song, where seldom are heard discouraging words.

The Old West has become the New West, but for a few moments last Monday evening, Michael Martin Murphey, Philip Daughtry and the evening’s artists at the Autry National Center helped us remember how and why we all ended up here.


Melody. Spurs. Memory.
Michael Martin Murphey and Friends presented by Rachel Worby's MUSE/IQUE
Autry National Center in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, California
Monday, April 9, 2012, 7:30pm

Photo credits: First photo (montage of Western stars at the Autry) and third photo (Murphey with his guitar) are by Rodney Punt. Middle photo (the assembled at the grand lower foyer) is by Melissa Kobe, used by permission of the photographer who can be contacted at

About the Autry National Center

The Autry National Center, founded by legendary recording and cowboy movie star Gene Autry, has become in the last decade a major force in the history of the American West. Formed in 2003 by the merger of the Autry Museum of Western Heritage with the Southwest Museum of the American Indian and the Women of the West Museum, the Autry National Center is an intercultural history center dedicated to exploring and sharing the stories, experiences, and perceptions of the diverse peoples of the American West.

Located in Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, the largest urban park in the nation, the Autry’s collection of over 500,000 pieces of art and artifacts now includes the collection of the Southwest Museum of the American Indian, one of the largest and most significant in the United States. The Autry Institute includes two research libraries: the Braun Research Library and the Autry Library. Exhibitions, public programs, K–12 educational services, and publications are designed to examine critical issues of society, offering insights into solutions and the contemporary human condition through the Western historical experience.

See here for personal background on Rodney Punt's heritage of Western-warbling maternal ancestors. Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Rodney Punt's Western warbling maternal heritage

Music reviewer Rodney Punt comes from a long line of Western-migrating, music-loving Americans. His birth parents were from Colorado; a father on the violin and mother on the piano made for a musical romance.

Punt's ancestral lines had arrived in Massachusetts from England, his maternal side in 1628 and his paternal side a few years later. Two and a half centuries later, in the 1880's, his maternal great-grandfather Mel Turner was a cattleman with 1,700 head in the Bedrock/Paradox area of Western Colorado. Described by author Howard E. Greager as a well-liked man "who did not know the word fear", Turner had a tender side; his only recorded words were an expressed appreciation for music and a desire to obtain a musician in his hometown of Bedrock. As quoted by historian W.O. Roberts, Turner cackled: "By gory lightening, we got to get us a feller in a filed shirt to whistle us a few prayers and warble us a few psalms."

Turner's appreciation for music was passed on to his son, Willard ("Bill") Turner, who had a fine singing voice and played the fiddle for barn dances in his younger days in Colorado in the early 1920's. Bill Turner was fascinated by the emerging technology of recorded sound and, largely self-taught at the age 26, was hired as a sound technician at the newly formed Hollywood-based RKO Studios in 1929.

Turner had arrived at the right place at the right time. He worked on the Richard Dix-Irene Dunne epic Cimarron, the first Western to win an academy award, in 1931, and soon after on the Astaire-Rogers musicals during the 1930's. In 1940 he worked on Orson Welles' Citizen Kane and after on The Magnificent Ambersons, and was selected by Welles to be part of the RKO team that was sent to Brazil to film aspects of the carnival of Rio de Janeiro in 1942, a project that lasted six months but was aborted by the studio and almost ended Orson Welles' career.

Bill Turner went on to win a technical award in 1943 from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for his work on a film device that improved the synchronization of sound and action.

With a growing family in the late 1930's, Turner made sure his four children played musical instruments. They formed an odd grouping of violin, cello, saxophone, and piano, but were at least on one occasion able to con the neighborhood into paying 25 cents admission for a home concert. The Turner children later performed in the Hollywood High School orchestra. Punt's mother, Katheline Turner, was the rehearsal pianist for Hollywood High's Boy's Glee Club in the early 1940's. Bill Turner sang in the RKO Studio Singers in the mid-1940's and Katheline Turner sang and played piano for the group under the direction of the studio's vocal coach, Bob Keith.

Another of Punt’s maternal relatives was the late historian of the American West, David Lavender, whose books are often available at the Autry National Center. Lavender, who shared Danish ancestors through his maternal line with the Turner family, wrote elegantly of the rough and tumble part of Western Colorado in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Soprano-Keyed Freeway at Hollywood Bowl

Created by a group called the Clínica do Deficiente Musical, this nifty image suggests a long parking access to the Hollywood Bowl, or perhaps even a substitute parking lot. I am having some difficulty figuring out why that particular perspective is supposed to be facing a western sky, but let's not quibble.

A big shout-out to the Clínica for their fanciful take on one of Los Angeles's iconic images.

Here is their Facebook page. If you hurry, you can see one of their coffee cups with a great guitar handle.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

World Premiere by Stephen Cohn at Shumei Hall

Young Musicians and a Seasoned Composer Deliver Hope

Review by Rodney Punt

On the far eastern fringes of Pasadena’s Colorado Boulevard, beyond trendy Old Town and past the impressively façaded walls of Pasadena Community College, noteworthy buildings give way to modest shops and restaurants catering mostly to locals. In this leafy, low-key neighborhood, one doesn’t expect an encounter with the handsome modern building called Shumei Hall. As part of a tranquil spiritual center, it has the lofty goal of promoting universal wellbeing with educational programs that ennoble young people through the arts, music, and environmental awareness.

I was there for a second installment of the Shumei Arts Council’s annual Clyde Montgomery Concert, named in memory of a supporter of the center’s programs. One of the loveliest way-stations in the long and arduous journey classical musicians must make to secure their futures is certainly this serene performance space, its exterior skirted last Sunday by an exuberance of spring blossoms.

Cares of the day vanished as I entered Shumei Hall from a patio surrounded by a harmonious complex of buildings. Obscured clerestory windows high above bathed the space in natural light. The seating pews of the hall's semi-circular interior scaled down to a stage at the room’s central axis. Risers had extended that stage last Sunday to accommodate a Petrof baby grand and various chamber-sized configurations that would later be heard in the room’s near-perfect acoustics.
Here was a case of an architecture mimicking its spiritual inspiration.

Young Professional Musicians

Showcased in an eclectic student recital were seventeen of the Southland’s finest young instrumentalists and one singer. As in last year’s concert, the musicians came from greater Los Angeles’s preeminent institutions of music education: the downtown Colburn School of Performing Arts, USC’s Thornton School of Music and UCLA’s Music Department. The afternoon’s repertoire focused on nineteenth and twentieth century fare, with one newly commissioned work added to the mix.

The only qualm I had in the full program was that just the first movements of two of the longer works could be performed. But the compensation was to be able to enjoy so many young musicians, with top-notch talent and training on full display in works that can challenge even seasoned professionals. These young artists are poised to take their places among the world’s prominent musicians in short order.

UCLA Opera’s Leslie Anne Cook, a mezzo soprano with a rich, burgundy-tinted voice, gave a drolly sensuous account of Rossini’s “Una voce poco fa” from his Barber of Seville and an idiomatically wistful rendition of the “Violin Aria” from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann. Cook’s work in UCLA’s rough-and-ready production of Handel’s Agrippina in 2010 was already strong. These performances confirmed she is now only an engagement or two away from professional roles.

Violinists Heidi Hatch and Vincent Meklis made dazzling fireworks of two Wieniawski showpieces, while pianist Christopher Goodpasture did the same for a work by Debussy actually named Fireworks. Supported by fine piano collaborations, cellists Se-Doo Park (in Fauré) and Yoshika Masuda (in Dvořák) graced the afternoon with two meltingly lyrical works. A string quartet from USC’s Thornton School spun gossamer silk of Mendelssohn’s lapidary fourth quartet, while a clarinet-violin-piano trio shared a plaintive side of the often-fiery Aram Khachaturian. (The complete program and artists are listed below.)

World Premiere of American Spring by Stephen Cohn

The fine performances notwithstanding, the highlight of the afternoon arrived immediately after intermission with the world premiere of a new work by the Emmy-winning, Los Angeles-based composer Stephen Cohn. It was the Shumei Arts Council’s fourth commission from the composer. Entitled American Spring, this one was set for the unusual combination of string trio and marimba.

As the composer himself explained in his introductory remarks, “The title was inspired by the Arab Spring: the metaphor being that in the Middle East they fought to adopt a system of freedom and compassion from another culture and this piece of music brings together instruments from different cultures with the thought of bringing people together.”

Cohn describes its structure as having four main ideas. The strings introduce a melodic, contrapuntal, quasi-minimalistic section that reappears in various guises throughout. An energetic marimba melody then joins in, using intervals and chords, later teamed with pizzicato strings in syncopated rhythms. Next comes a harmonic progression, treated with ever-denser textures, followed by a concluding rapid atonal marimba figure with poly-rhythmic elements harmonized by the strings. Relating to the work’s title, Cohn’s use of strings, with their customary sustained tones and rich harmonies, suggests a European musical heritage. Angular melodic intervals of the second and fourth steps may also nod to the intellectualism of European composers like Paul Hindemith. By contrast, the marimba’s percussive rhythms invoke the naturalistic, primal cultural heritage of South America and Africa where that instrument originated. How the two contrasting sonorities come to terms is key to understanding the musical essence of American Spring.

The performance was all one could ask for. The Thornton School's Benjamin Phelps proved a magician of the marimba with an archer's accuracy on double mallets in both hands, setting the pace for the strings to switch gears to his pulsing groove as soon as he joined them. The string trio -- Caitlin Kelley, violin; Anna Kolotylina, viola; Natalie Helm, cello -- from the Colburn School (L.A.'s version of NYC's Juilliard) tore into their parts with a full-bodied first section and fulfilled the composer's later requirements with stinging pizzicati and sharp rhythms, totally in sync with the marimba's mounting intensity.

Cohn’s American Spring is a musical analogue to the principal of opposites coming together and achieving unity while respecting their diversity, first codified in the Hegelian “thesis-antithesis-synthesis” model. That philosophy has also served as the idealistic framework for America’s progress as a nation, which in turn dovetails beautifully with the Shumei Arts Council’s mission.

As I didn’t review last year’s Shumei commission of Cohn’s Sea Change, a few words are in order. It is written for the so-called “Pierrot ensemble” of flute, clarinet, violin, cello and piano, the term referring to Arnold Schoenberg’s first use of the configuration in his eponymous work.

Sea Change is at turns romantically translucent and ferociously driven. A solo flute intones a seraphic ditty with embracing impressionistic piano chords in the manner of a Ravel chamber work, but soon a rhythmic romp from the rest of the instruments follows. The pensive flute returns, joined by a violin and all instruments in what feels like a searching, curious, "I’m-late-for-a-very-important-date" state of mind. Soon the musical characters are skirting off again on a frenetic journey with building tension. A furious tutti concludes the charming work. The effect overall is that of a dreamer (the flute) caught up in an urgent agenda it hadn't quite planned on.

Composers crave first performances but second and third ones validate their creations as having taken on lives of their own. Since its world premiere at Shumei in last year's fine performance, Sea Change enjoyed a well-received Italian premiere in Rome earlier this week by the ensemble, Piccolo Academia Degli Specchi (The Little Academy Of The Hall Of Mirrors). Later this spring it will be performed in Iceland. (There’s a spring in Iceland? Who knew.)

I reviewed another Cohn work a year ago last January, the excellent Winter Soul in a concert by the Eclipse Quartet; the work has since been performed to acclaim in Northern California.

The sheer intelligence of Cohn's approach to composition eschews trendy conceptual gimmicks popular with some composers and his approach to his work respects and complements the highly-evolved talents of the young professional musicians he collaborates with at Shumei.

All three recent works by Cohn are characterized by driving, almost compulsive energy, as if they were on urgent missions to find solutions to important quests. Each resides in its own sonic and structural world, but they all adhere to the similar conceptual approach of being “abstract” but not “absolute” in musical statement. That is, while his works have program titles and narratives, these extra-musical associations are not so much literal descriptions as stimuli for musical ideas working themselves out on their own terms. The listener can use Cohn’s extra-musical titles as aural guides or listen solely to the unfolding musical developments. It is this dual quality of abstract and concrete that makes his music interesting on so many levels.

E pluribus unum!

This country may be at an uncertain junction on the road to its future, but the Shumei Arts Council, a handful of young musicians, and composer Stephen Cohn are pointing a most noble way forward.

Can universal wellbeing be far behind?


Program at Shumei Hall, Pasadena, California -- Sunday, April 1, 2:30 pm

Trio for Clarinet, Violin and Piano by Aram Khachaturian (I. Andante con dolore, con molto espressione) Adam Lefkowitz, violin; Jonathan Galbreath, clarinet; Shanice Aaron, piano (Junior Chamber Music)

“Una voce poco fa” from The Barber of Seville by Gioachino Rossini
“The violin Aria” from The Tales of Hoffmann by Jacques Offenbach
Leslie Anne Cook, mezzo-soprano (UCLA) Accompanied by Nathan Maurer, piano

String Quartet No. 4 in E minor, Op. 44, No. 2 by Felix Mendelssohn
I. Allegro assai appassionato II. Scherzo: Allegro di molto III. Andante IV. Presto agitato
Vincent Meklis, violin; Heidi Hatch, violin; Diana Wade, viola; Yoshika Masuda, cello (USC Thornton School)

American Spring (World Premiere) by Stephen Cohn
Caitlin Kelley, violin; Anna Kolotylina, viola; Natalie Helm, cello (Colburn School)
Benjamin Phelps, marimba (USC Thornton School of Music)

Rondo in G minor, Op. 94 by Antonin Dvorak
Se-Doo Park, cello (Colburn School)
Accompanied by Alice Yoo (USC Thornton School of Music)

Impromptu, Op. 142 No. 2 in A flat major by Franz Schubert
Feux d’ artifice Claude Debussy
Christopher Goodpasture, piano (USC Thornton School of Music)

Elegy and Romance by Gabriel Fauré
Yoshika Masuda, cello (USC Thornton School of Music)
Accompanied by Henry Gronnier

Sonata No. 5 for Two Violins - I. Allegro ma poco, by Jean-Marie Leclair
Caprice, Op. 18 No. 3 for Two Violins by Henryk Wieniawski
Caprice, Op. 18 No. 4 for Two Violins by Henryk Wieniawski
Heidi Hatch and Vincent Meklis, violin (USC Thornton School of Music)

Photos by SHINGO MURAYAMA are used by permission of the Shumei Arts Council
Above: Shumei Hall, American Spring Performance, Composer Stephen Cohn

Sunday, April 1, 2012

L. A. Master Chorale performs Bach's St. John Passion

by Douglas Neslund

The 38-year old Johann Sebastian Bach composed his St. John Passion (BWV 245) in 1724 as the crowning work of his first year as Kantor of Thomaskirche in Leipzig (currently celebrating its 800th year since its founding in 1212). The Los Angeles Master Chorale, together with twelve soloists drawn from the Chorale and the Los Angeles-based period instrument ensemble Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, performed the work in Walt Disney Concert Hall over the Palm Sunday weekend.

Forty voices of such professional amplitude were about eight voices too many for the much weaker Baroque instruments in the Passion’s choruses, an imbalance that persisted throughout the performance. Bach’s genius for writing an appropriate instrumental texture beneath and sometimes surrounding the vocal artists was therefore too often lost. Maestro Grant Gershon, standing on the conductor’s podium, may not have heard how unbalanced the sound really was. By stark contrast, the orchestra was well heard in the many solo arias, and played to their usual stylistic best.

Other than the choral-orchestral imbalance, the performance went very well indeed. There are perhaps only a few choral ensembles in the world that can draw twelve soloists from its own ranks and deliver on virtually every one, but the Master Chorale did just that. Past local performances of the St. John Passion have not been numerous, but a memory of some brings to mind a series of vocal mismatches, bleats and woofy production, as various chorus members attempted a brief moment in the public spotlight. Such was clearly not the case here.

From the outset, Niké St. Clair’s mezzo soprano aria “Von den Stricken meiner Sünden,” sung with gorgeous tone and unusually clear German text delivery to Elissa Johnston’s soaring soprano aria “Zerfließe, mein Herze” with a beautifully burnished, triumphant legato delivery, the standard was definitely set at high bar. In between appeared the following (in order):
  • Bass Scott Graff as the voice of Jesus. Mr.Graff’s voice is more commanding of attention, especially given his physical size, and he might have used a bit more fierce strength to better effect in his otherwise fine portrayal.
  • Soprano Claire Fedoruk sang “Ich folge dir gleichfalls” with perhaps a touch too much “hey, look me over” theatrics but with an engagingly naïve boy soprano-like clarity and charm.
  • Soprano Hayden Eberhart as the Maid, Bass Melvir Ausente as Peter, and Tenor Brandon Hynum as the Servant performed Peter’s brief scene denying any association with Jesus.
  • Tenor Daniel Chaney in “Ach, mein Sinn” sang with all the drama the text requires, delivered with a most effective heartfelt urgency.
  • Bass Gregory Geiger, in the role of Pilate, used his rich voice to convey Pilate’s ambivalent commitment to ordering Jesus crucified.
  • Bass Reid Bruton in “Betrachte meine Seele” displayed the most authentic bass voice among so many others, with beautiful tone and fine textual clarity.
  • Tenor Jon Lee Keenan in “Erwäge, wie sein blutgefärbter Rücken” sang with unfettered ease throughout the wide-ranging aria, and should one day take on the role of Evangelist.
  • Bass-Baritone Steve Pence performed “Eilt, ihr angefochtnen Seelen” with an overtone-rich voice that is both musical and pleasing.
  • Mezzo Soprano Janelle DeStefano in “Es ist vollbracht!” (more on this below)
  • Bass Vincent Robles in “Mein teurer Heiland” performed with a plangent and pleasantly open vocal technique.
  • Tenor Pablo Corá in “Mein Herz, in dem die ganze Welt” (more below)

The wealth of vocal talent on display certainly did not deplete the talent reserve of others sitting in the chorus, as many who have soloed in the past gave their utmost support. The only weakness in this chorus of 40 was a persistently wobbly soprano voice heard in quieter moments that had the tendency to compromise an otherwise solid section sound, obviously a vocal technical issue.

Ms. DeStefano’s performance of “Es ist vollbracht!,” the Passion’s primary point of focus, was truly exceptional. One wonders if a better unity could have been achieved had she stood near or next to the gambist who accompanied her, Joshua Lee, as the space between them seemed to work against optimal collaboration. Still, their delivery of this key moment was beautifully carried off, and superior to most other performances elsewhere. Throughout the Passion, Maestro Gershon kept the motion leaning forward, except after this aria, when he allowed a moment or two of reflective pause.

Mr. Corá was, once again, challenged by the role of Evangelist-Narrator, which serves as the lynchpin for the entire work. It is a role that demands much from whomever might get the assignment: a wide range of both notes and expression that eluded Mr. Corá in the lower one-third range and in some of the dialogue where too much expression meant losing the story line. Those who have observed and enjoyed the Master Chorale over the years know what an excellent musician Mr. Corá is, and appreciate the challenge of this Passion as well as the St. Matthew Passion of recent seasons.

Musica Angelica is populated with such excellent musicians, it is difficult to single out anyone for special notice, but surely the continuo comprised of organist Ian Pritchard, violonist Denise Brisé, cellist Ezra Seltzer and the aforementioned Joshua Lee, deserve high praise.


NOTE: The printed program stated that Musica Angelica's cellist was Tanya Tomkins. After posting the review, LA Opus learned that there was a last-minute substitution of Tomkins by cellist Ezra Seltzer. Brought to our attention initially by a reader, the substitution was later confirmed by staff from Musica Angelica. The text above has been corrected.

Photos: Los Angeles Master Chorale and Wikipedia Commons, with permission.