Monday, September 29, 2014

Jessie Chang and Friends Shine in San Diego

By Erica Miner

Internationally acclaimed, award-winning pianist Jessie Chang is known for her virtuosity, lovely tone, and unique, distinctive style. San Diego’s First Presbyterian Church (, which gives an extensive concert series often including members of the San Diego Symphony, hosted Chang and four of her SD Symphony friends (violinists Jisun Yang and Julia Pautz, violist Chi-Yuan Chen and cellist Yao Zhao) in an ambitious program featuring Darius Milhaud’s intriguing La création du monde, op. 81a, and Antonin Dvořák’s beloved Piano Quintet No. 2 in A major, op. 81.

In the early 1920s, as African and Afro-American fashion swept the Paris of Josephine Baker and Picasso, Milhaud journeyed to New York, where he frequented Harlem’s nightclubs and bars and mingled with jazz musicians. Captivated by the city’s “authentic” jazz culture, he returned to Paris with a great love for jazz, blues, swing, and the exotic, pulsating rhythms of Africa, and began to write in the jazz idiom. “The music was absolutely different from anything I had ever heard before, and was a revelation to me,” the composer said. “Against the beat of the drums the melodic lines crisscrossed in a breathless pattern of broken and twisted rhythms.” At Création’s premiere in 1923, critics declared the music “frivolous” - more appropriate for a dance hall than a concert hall. The same detractors changed their tune a decade later, when a highly popularized jazz style became the subject of their philosophical discussions.

Originally commissioned in 1922 by Ballets Suédois, a company contemporary to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, the six-movement work generally is performed in concert halls rather than as a ballet. In their rendition of Milhaud’s own arrangement for piano quintet, Chang and her friends impressed, not only with their virtuosity but also with their intuitive understanding of Milhaud’s bluesy harmonies, melodies, and irresistible foot-stomping rhythms. The players distinctly emphasized the “blue notes” of Gershwin and Bernstein and the rhythmic influences of Milhaud’s compatriots Ravel and Poulenc, captivating the audience with their energy and dynamism.

The ensemble’s virtuosic skills shone to great effect in the Dvořák quintet, which holds its own well-defined place among the pantheon of other monumental masterpieces of this genre; i.e. those of Brahms, Schubert and Schumann. Dvořák’s work is unique in that he melds his own individual expressive style with the Czech folk song and dance melodies of his native land.

Each movement offered opportunities for the individual instrumentalists to excel. The players’ enthusiasm stood out in their separate solos and also produced an impressive ensemble. Chang’s pianistic brilliance and appealing musical warmth were brought to prominence throughout the technically and interpretively challenging work, as she negotiated the fiendishly difficult piano part with seeming ease, especially in the spirited folk dance-based Furiant third movement, which has been known to defeat the most intrepid pianists. 

Yang’s aggressive leadership and penetrating tone were impressive. She and Pautz were perfectly matched, each standing out in their individual solo turns and blending seamlessly, as if one instrument, while playing together. So, too were Chen and Zhao, providing a solid, perfectly synched lower-range foundation to the upper voices. Dvořák, who played viola in his early musical life, clearly loved the instrument, and Chen rose to the occasion with his poignant, sensitive rendering of the extended viola solo in the Eastern European folk ballad-based Dumky second movement. From the opening solo in the first movement and throughout his solo turns, Zhao performed magisterially, at times evoking Dvořák’s cello concerto, the mainstay of the instrument’s solo repertoire. 

Chang, along with Yang, Pautz, Chen and Zhao, will perform again at San Diego Central Library on Nov. 9.

Photos used by permission of Jessie Chang
Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Conductor Christopher Hogwood Has Died

It has been announced that the conductor Christopher Hogwood has died at the age of 73. The official announcement on Hogwood's website reads, "Following an illness lasting several months, Christopher died peacefully on Wednesday 24 September, a fortnight after his 73rd birthday. He was at home in Cambridge, with family present. The funeral will be private, with a memorial service to be held at a later date." Read more on the Grammophone announcement.

Monday, September 8, 2014

The Persians of Aeschylus Premieres at Getty Villa

Gian-Murray Gianino as Xerxes
Review by Rodney Punt

Despite the attempts of sane minds to stem the destructiveness of war, its eons-long sway, arising from human greed or grievance, seems eternal.

The oldest surviving play in western civilization, Aeschylus’ The Persians, clocking in at just shy of 2,500 years, has been trotted out each recent decade as a cautionary tale against hubris whenever the USA goes to war. It relates the disastrous campaign by the superior forces of Persia against the seemingly outnumbered Greeks in the naval battle of Salamis, where the Persian armada was routed at great loss of life.

Aeschylus, who had participated as a combatant in the wars he wrote about, was both generous and shrewd when he set his version of the story from the perspective of the defeated Persians, not the triumphant Greeks. Generous in that the grief and humiliation of an enemy was humanized; shrewd in that references in the play by Persians to Greek battle prowess come across as the grudging admiration of a foe, not the jingoistic bragging of a victor.

(The Greek city-states, by the way, were by no means all on speaking terms with each other; many were in fact allied with Persia.)

In the 1993 aftermath of the first Gulf War, Peter Sellars mounted a blaring, glaring, and unsparing production of the play for Edinburgh and Los Angeles (the latter at the Mark Taper Forum), where the shade of dead King Darius screamed his regrets over a loudspeaker. Later stagings in the style of 24-hour news-cycles shook up Edinburgh and New York after the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq. This month, as the American response to the rise of ISIS draws our country into another campaign in Iraq to bomb fanatics into obedience, the Getty Villa in California’s peaceful Pacific Palisades, hosts the New York-based SITI Company for the latest version of The Persians.

The company as the Chorus
Refreshingly retro under company co-artistic director Anne Bogart’s direction at its premiere last Wednesday, its stylized choreography, elegiac tone, and professional elocution emphasized reflection over gimmick, pathos over bombast, and precision over pretension. Forgoing the attention grabbing but ultimately ephemeral stage effects of recent outings, this one left an afterglow of emotive substance to ponder.

It wasn't perfect, but it was mighty good. The story unfolds more as an ensemble piece than as individual tours de force, though there were some of the latter. Principal players emerge from within the Chorus and then blend back into the ensemble when their moment is over.

With nine transparent orange curtains draped as backdrop between the columns of the Villa’s northwest façade, the actors emerged one by one from its entrance door and assumed sculpted positions, sometimes as if they were statues speaking. The highly disciplined SITI Company’s declamatory speech (in Aaron Poochigian’s skillful new translation of the play) combined with dance and music to evoke the feel of ancient ritualistic theater as it delivered its timely message.

The stage area was the tiled exterior floor space between the Villa’s wall and the theater’s semi-circular seating. Bogart choreographed her nine actors in geometric dances -- sometimes individualized, often in unison imitation -- to achieve drama and action around and within the dialogue. The quirky movements recalled those associated with primitive Asian peoples who over the millennia populated vast areas from Asia Minor eastward all the way to North America.

The Chorus of Persian Elders initially attempts to calm Queen Attossa of Persia’s apprehensions of disaster, and throughout the play comments on the eventual disaster’s significance. ("The Greeks serve no king.") The Queen fears for her son, Xerxes, who has led the Persians on the campaign against the Greeks that only the death of her late husband, King Darius, had prevented from his leading.

Will Bond (Messenger) & Ellen Lauren (Queen)
A threadbare Persian messenger (the willowy, bare-chested Will Bond, tied to an oar for an impossibly long interval) is the first to report the news to the Persian court. Returning General Xerxes (an emotionally wounded, nuanced Gian-Murray Gianino) then arrives in brocaded tatters and chronicles to his mother the armada’s disastrous defeat by the wily Greeks. ("Athens has killed our sons.") Having lost his initial encounter, the rash Xerxes ("popped up with pride," according to his mother, and as history suggests trying to outdo his father) had doubled down his forces in an attempt to gain victory, but only found further defeat and the near destruction of all his charges.

The Queen (in a powerful performance of human distress by Ellen Lauren) wails in her grief at the news ("So much for the odds"), but engages in damage control at court for fear that Xerxes could lose standing in the empire. ("The people will be free to speak what they want.") She is hardly consoled by further woeful regrets of her ghostly late husband, Darius (a sepulchral Stephen Duff Webber), who curses his reckless son and laments the destruction of all he had built during his lifetime.

The Persians is not so much drama – there is no real confrontation or conflict – as an extended ode of lamentation. In its unfolding in this production, the burden of forward momentum fell on the Chorus, whose songs and dances (the latter sometimes almost painterly abstractions) energetically interpret the sad revelations. Their sweep was not always in perfect sync with details of the narrative, but that is only to quibble with what was throughout always an engaging larger picture.

Ring and Chorus around Queen Attossa
In that regard, the costumes of Nephelie Andonyadis (modern men’s suits with the ladies in floor length dresses) created a feel of kindred time zones between the ancient world and today. An arresting flourish was the long gold train behind the Queen's dress, which configured later as an encircling corral of protection. Darron L. West’s sound-design of percussive noises, rattles, and bells reinforced the action with punch and a feel of timeless profundity. Composer Victor Zupanc’s minor-mode songs were less successful, seeming a tad too comfy Elizabethan England for a tragedy set in an exotic ancient Persia.

Xerxes couldn't have known it then, but his hubristic rush to war at Salamis may just have saved what we refer to today as western civilization. Now it's our turn to think twice before we act in wars heading the other way.


Incidental grouse: While the seating duration on the nicely cushioned cement bleachers was no Greek marathon, it was uncomfortable without a backrest for an intermission-challenged 90-minutes.

Photo credits:
1. Gian-Murray Gianino as Xerxes (center) in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 
2. The Chorus in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 
3. Will Bond as the Messenger in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 
4. SITI Company cast in "Persians" by Aeschylus at the Getty Villa. © 2014 Craig Schwartz. 

Review of Premiere on Wednesday, September 3, 2014, Getty Villa, Pacifica Palisades, California
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Pérez and Costello Heat Up San Diego Opera’s Stage

By Erica Miner

The “red hot” Ailyn Pérez-Stephen Costello duo, having been likened to rock star couples, rarely perform together, each having his or her own separate career in opera houses worldwide. That makes their first appearance here since 2011, in recital to inaugurate the “New” San Diego Opera at the Balboa Theatre, a rare thrill. 

Both singers have won the prestigious Richard Tucker Award (2009 for Costello and 2012 for Pérez), and their joint performance at the Tucker Gala in 2012 was broadcast nationwide. They each enjoy international careers in multiple roles at renowned opera houses in San Francisco, Munich, Vienna, London, La Scala, Salzburg, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and New York. At SDO, The real-life married couple debuted together in the 2010 production of Romeo and Juliet, and returned in Faust in 2011. Costello then revisited during that season in Der Rosenkavalier and again in 2013’s Daughter of the Regiment. Pérez is slated to star in the much-anticipated Jake Heggie opera that will premiere in 2016.

The duo’s performance here on Sept. 5, which kicked off their fall US recital tour to Washington, D.C., Dallas and Philadelphia, included highlights from their recently completed Love Duets CD. It also marked the first time SDO has presented a performance event at the Balboa Theatre. 

From their first meeting at Philadelphia Academy of Vocal Arts to their many stage appearances in the ensuing years, Pérez and Costello have been recapturing their love in the most beloved romantic opera repertoire. Both voices are, in a word, gorgeous, and together and separately filled every inch of the hall. Add to this the singers’ versatility, dramatic and comic flair, and clear affection for opera and for each other, and the result was a breathtaking performance from start to finish. 

Given the couple’s extensive background in musical theatre, it was not surprising that they included beloved popular Broadway show hits in the program, which ended with the goose bump-producing “One Hand, One Heart” and “Tonight” from Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story and an exquisite rendering of “If I Loved You” from Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel as an encore. 

The singers’ operatic fare encompassed both standard and unusual repertoire, much of which is found on their recently released album. In a vocally stunning rendering of the impassioned duet from Verdi’s La Traviata, the heat sizzled between them at every touch and gaze. The delightful “Cherry Duet” from Mascagni’s charming but rarely heard L’Amico Fritz provided both singers an opportunity to make the most of their vocal beauty as well as their scintillating dramatic give and take. Their comic jousting, with suggestions of improvisation, in the popular Caro Elisir duet from Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore was hilarious, and the epitome of entertainment for the delighted audience. 

Each artist also performed art songs and arias from great moments in operatic literature. Pérez sparkled in Je Suis Encore from Massenet’s Manon, charmingly portraying the coquettishness of the young heroine. In songs by Reynaldo Hahn, her shimmering voice and subtlety of tone kept the audience mesmerized. The highlight of her solo excerpts came with a panoply of de Falla songs, which ranged from glittering to smoky, spirited to introspective. Here she utilized the full spectrum of her dramatic talents, displaying vivacious Spanish temperament with every turn of phrase.

Costello’s vocal gifts were evident in each of his solo pieces. He expertly handled the complexities of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s brilliant, witty “Songs in Homage to Poulenc.” The range of emotion and high tessitura of Paolo Tosti’s three songs, which could defeat the most resolute tenor, proved to be no contest for Costello’s crystal clear, powerful tones. And Salut, Demeure from Gounod’s Faust, perhaps the most demanding tenor aria in all of French opera with its fiendish, almost sadistic high “C,” came off without a hitch. 

Pianist Danielle Orlando’s impressive resume includes coaching at major musical institutions in the US and abroad, accompanying many of the world’s best-loved opera stars, and contributing her expertise to young artist programs. She has been featured on some of the most prominent TV shows in the US. Her experience was evident in her sensitive, solid accompaniment in this performance, displaying her remarkable technique without undermining the captivating performances of the soloists. She was the next best thing to an orchestra, in fact, providing much more than support to her singers. Her roulades in the difficult de Falla songs leapt off the keyboard; she evoked the sublime violin solo in the Gounod as effectively as any pianist could do; and she knew exactly which voices to emphasize in the Bernstein excerpts. 

It is easy to see why Pérez and Costello are equally at home as the ill fated couple in a full production of La Traviata or singing love duets on a recital stage. Their chemistry is palpable, their commitment to their art is inspiring, and the sheer intensity of their vocal virtuosity is mind-blowing. Having professed their admiration for the determination and grit shown in SDO’s journey from near-closing to resurrection and a brand-new 50th anniversary season, their willingness to add their outstanding talent and shining presence to celebrate SDO’s entry into a new chapter with this remarkable event bodes well for the company’s future. 

The rescue of SDO has inspired awe and admiration from opera aficionados nationwide. Opera America president Mark Scorca has praised the company’s example of cutting costs, simplifying operations and leadership in bringing the company into the twenty-first century. As SDO Director of Education Nic Reveles and board president Carol Lazier pointed out in their brief speech to open the proceedings, other companies have tried and failed to accomplish what SDO has done with such passion and commitment in a few short months. 

This stunning performance in the company’s season-opening recital, in a more intimate and manageable venue than the Civic Theatre, shows great promise for the remainder of the season, and hopefully for the seasons to come. The audience left the theatre with strains of “If I Loved You” still hovering in the air. Clearly there is no “if” in the love that the city San Diego feels for our Opera. 

Subscriptions and single tickets for the rest of the 2014-15 SDO season performances can be purchased by calling (619) 533-7000 or online at

Photos by Molina used by permission of San Diego Opera
Erica Miner can be contacted at e[email protected]