Tuesday, December 23, 2014

SALUTE TO VIENNA Coming Soon to Los Angeles

Salute to Vienna: International Champion Ballroom Dancers
By Rodney Punt

The Viennese are partial to mixing gaiety and nostalgia, especially when celebrating New Year’s Day. The exemplar is Vienna’s storied “Neujahrskonzert” that launches each new year in the Austrian capital. It’s a confection of waltzes, marches, polkas and gallops, interspersed with operetta excerpts, all delivered non-stop by a host of charming singers, elegant dancers and a bubbling orchestra. You feel happy when you hear the music, but you can also feel a tug at your heart if you pay attention to the lyrics. We'll mix dialects and call the riotous concoction of whipped cream and sentimentality “Schlagsahne mit Schmaltz.”

Experiencing such sensations need not involve a trip to Vienna. A version of the storied celebration, called "Salute to Vienna," returns to the Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall on Sunday, January 4, with dancers, singers and the Strauss Symphony of America all presided over by the genial conductor, Niels Muus.
Lilla Galambos
A star-studded European cast ushers in the show with a frothy collection of lilting Strauss waltzes, including the beautiful Blue Danube and operetta favorites from Die Fledermaus and The Merry Widow. Featured Viennese artists are soprano Lilla Galambos, tenor Eugene Amesmann, and baritone Thomas Weinhappel, joined by the International Champion Ballroom Dancers and members the Europaballett St. Pölten. It’s an E-ticket Disney Hall ride to Vienna, the fabledCity of Dreams.

A transplanted Dane who is now a fixture of Vienna’s music scene, conductor Muus is simultaneously artistic adviser to Vienna’s Mozarthaus, music director of the Steyr Music Festival, and head of opera programs at Vienna’s Music Conservatory. He knows a thing or two about the Viennese and their musical mentality. He's also acquainted with the Los Angeles music scene, having studied three decades ago with pianist Jakob Gimpel at Cal State University in Northridge.

I placed a call to Muus in his now adopted city of Vienna to ask what’s in store for the performance in Los Angeles. He suggested that the audience listen to both the happy and wistful elements at the upcoming performance.
Niels Muus
Muus: You know, Vienna’s music is lighthearted but it also has an undertow of sorrow. Popular music in Vienna was always about longing for a lost love. In a Viennese song, the first two verses are about nature and love, but the third one is about death; it’s like dancing on a volcano. Richard Strauss talked about how the Marschallin’s farewell (in the opera Der Rosenkavalier) should be performed ‘with one eye wet, the other dry.’ People usually end up smiling and sobbing after hearing the music of Vienna.
Punt: Viennese music in the nineteenth century was also about being, shall we say, naughty and nice. Wasn’t the waltz the dangerous cousin of the older country Ländler, the bad-boy in the triple-meter dance family?

Muus: (Laughs heartily) Oh, yes. The Viennese waltz was considered dangerous. Early in the century the authorities branded it immoral. When people first took up the waltz, it was the closest together dancers had ever held each other. Proper society thought they could get sick from it; at one time it was even forbidden.

Punt: There’s a something of a tradition of Danish musicians visiting Viennese composers. Friedrich Kuhlau, blind in one eye, and the deaf Beethoven found friendship in their mutual handicaps. Danish symphonist Carl Nielson visited Brahms. Will you perform any Danish numbers on this program?

Thomas Weinhappel
Muus: I brought Carl Nielson’s opera Maskarade to Vienna in 1992. But that was my first and last Danish work presented here. I do mainly Austro-German and Italian works now, and after so many years in Viennese environs, I feel more like an Austrian. But, you know, I was born in Pennsylvania of Danish parents on temporary assignment there, and I possess both American and European passports, so I am a lucky man.

Lucky will be the Angelinos hosted by this charmer and his entourage at Disney Hall on January 4. Whether your inclination in early 2015 is for a dash of naughtiness, a dose of humor, or a generous portion of sentimentality, there will be moods to spare for you at an enchanting Salute to Vienna in 2015. 

Why, the entire family can party like it’s 1899 all over again.


Coming attraction: Salute to Vienna
Sunday, January 4 at 2:30 pm
Music Center’s Walt Disney Concert Hall
111 South Grand Ave., Los Angeles, CA 90012
Tickets: $42 - $126 -- See www.ticketmaster.com or call (800) 745-3000

Photos courtesy of Attila Glatz Concert Productions
Rodney Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Everything You Need to Know About Schubert's Songs

Graham Johnson’s opus is the definitive work on Schubert’s vocal music with piano.
Photo: Yale University Press
 by Rodney Punt

The world of music this autumn celebrates the 200th anniversary of Franz Schubert’s first masterpiece, “Gretchen am Spinnrade.” Its composition by the 17-year-old composer on Oct. 19, 1814, might as well signify the arrival of Romanticism in music. Renowned piano collaborator Graham Johnson describes the moment:

“It was Shakespeare who had liberated the young Goethe from the narrow precepts of his predecessors, and it was Goethe who performed the same service for Schubert. ‘Gretchen’ is his first Goethe setting and it was love at first sight. There had been dalliances with the idealized Elisa, Adelaide, and Laura of Matthisson but these were ‘nice’ girls; in Gretchen, who is on the brink of being engulfed by her own turbulent emotions and the strictures of a cruel world, the composer recognized the new frank reality of the romantic age, his own reality perhaps, and the full implications of his song-writing destiny.”

Insights like these have enlightened music lovers and practitioners for some years, at least those whose eyes could scrutinize the tiny print of thick liner notes for the Hyperion Records set of complete Schubert songs. Curated and recorded by Johnson with over 60 solo singers and choristers on the London-based label, its 37 award-winning discs were released one by one over an 18-year period beginning in 1987. The set was reissued with the songs in chronological order in 2005. Since then, new revelations from a veritable cottage industry of Schubert scholarship have sparked interest for a more comprehensive survey of his songs in a more handy format and in larger typeface. At long last, it has arrived.

Yale University Press has just released Johnson’s Franz Schubert: The Complete Songs. One of the most ambitious books on the lyric arts ever written by a single individual, the scope of Johnson’s accomplishment is remarkable. The three-volume set of nearly 3,000 pages contains more than 700 song commentaries with musical incipits for each, parallel poetry texts in German and English (by Richard Wigmore), biographies of 120 poets with details on poetic sources, a cornucopia of period iconography and modern drawings on the world of Schubert, and general articles on such related topics as pianists, singers, contemporaneous composers, dedicatees, accompaniment, opus numbers, chronologies, and much more.

The three-volume set is, by a wide margin, the definitive work on Schubert’s vocal music with piano. It's eminently readable, easy to navigate and entertaining, at one stroke the indispensable reference for singers, pianists, musicologists, lovers of music in general, and fans of Schubert in particular. As such, it is both the logical outcome and final summation of the earlier Hyperion Records survey.

Read more on Schubert and this publication on Classical Voice North America.


Punt can be contacted at [email protected]

Friday, December 12, 2014

Stephanie Blythe Channels Kate Smith - with Heart

By Erica Miner

What could be more luxurious than to bask in the glow of a truly great opera star singing song after song of a beloved icon from the previous century? In a word, nothing. Those who were fortunate, and prescient, enough to avail themselves of tickets to Stephanie Blythe’s glorious San Diego Opera concert presentation, We’ll meet again:
 The Songs of Kate Smith, were treated to an evening as indulgent as musical chocolates and champagne bubble bath. 

Accompanied by her equally billed pianist Craig Terry, who is her constant pillar of support on the concert stage, Blythe did more than evoke the wildly popular, much beloved mid-twentieth century crooner; she became Kate Smith. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XogKGeSuonY)

The acclaimed mezzo-soprano has made it known that her identification with the iconic American songstress, who was known during her astounding five-decade career as “The First Lady of Radio”, is total and complete. “Kate Smith is the quintessential American singer. I just plain admire her,” Blythe says. “Her story is remarkable, her zest for life and her passion about the country and about performing and connecting with audiences - exceptional.”

Smith’s support of the troops during World War II was crucial to the overall disposition of Americans, boosting the outlook of the populace, bringing them together and helping them endure those extraordinarily difficult times. Blythe feels that the music in her show has something for everyone; thus she has made a commitment to perform Smith’s songs all over the US. “There is not a single audience in this country that I’ve performed this show for that hasn’t felt touched by it in some way,” she says.

That statement rang true as popular favorites, at times humorous, at times seemingly spun from unadulterated nostalgia, cascaded one after another from Blythe’s superb instrument: Leigh Harline and Ned Washington’s beloved “When You Wish Upon a Star”; Smith’s signature “When the Moon Comes Over the Mountain”, written by Harry Woods, Howard Johnson and Smith; Hughie Charles & Ross Parker’s “We'll meet again”, in which Blythe urged the audience to sing along. During each of these and the panoply of others a collective vibration of joy and nostalgia seemed to resonate throughout the packed Balboa Theatre.

Blythe purposely omitted the list of selections from the program, in order to engage the audience as much as possible. When the time came for her to bid adieu to them for her rousing version of Irving Berlin’s “God Bless America”, perhaps the song which best evokes Smith’s persona, Blythe had so captured the heart of the audience that they spontaneously joined in the singing.

With each number, the audience became more enthralled, completely taken with Blythe’s lush, gorgeous voice and the emotions that were evoked as a result. One could almost feel the theatre swaying along with the soothing rhythms and lush melodies.

Blythe belted out the tunes as if born to them. Her renditions seemed effortlessly produced from a canny knowledge of what made Smith tick from the inside out. Her voice was sheer perfection, utterly fluent in every part of her register. The lower range scintillated, each display of her immense power in the upper range sent shivers up the spine, and brief hints at her stunning “opera voice” were thrilling. Her love for the songs flowed from every pore.

What made the presentation even more exceptional was Blythe’s running commentary before and in between each song, as she shared tidbits of her own background, her reasons for identifying with Smith, and little known details about Smith’s history. Blythe’s humor, candid perceptions and heartfelt affection for her vocal icon were infectious, and further captivated the audience. Her comment likening 1930s radio to today’s social media was truly insightful.

The performance of her companion and collaborator Craig Terry easily proved worthy of Blythe’s insistence that he receive equal billing with her. Blythe handpicked Terry, a product of the Metropolitan Opera’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program and currently an Assistant Conductor at Chicago Lyric Opera, not only for his outstanding technical command, but also for his artistic sensibilities and ability to convincingly demonstrate the exuberant qualities of Smith’s music.

He obviously was an excellent choice. Their collaboration seemed effortless and totally in sync on every level, and their obvious fondness and appreciation for each other were positively inspiring. At times Terry’s enthusiasm was so effusive it seemed as if he and the piano would go soaring into the stratosphere. He superbly captured both the subtleties and the full-out rollicking aspects of the music. An all too brief taste of his Chopin evoked a desire to hear him play more classical repertoire.

Blythe also has become recognized for her advocacy of American song in general, commissioning song cycles from well-known American composers. Since making her SDO debut last season in Verdi’s A Masked Ball, she has made known her affection for the city of San Diego, and for her pledge to help support San Diego Opera in any way she can. Thus the company is grateful for Blythe’s presence and her contribution to the 2014-2015 season.

Verdi isn’t her only strong suit. In recent years she has sung everything from Wagner to Bizet to Stravinsky, in virtually every major opera house and concert hall in the world. All the more reason why an evening of nostalgic favorites performed by her seemed like such an indulgence: a guilty pleasure with mostly pleasure and very little guilt.

Kate Smith, Blythe has said, was an amazing woman. Stephanie Blythe surely is an equally extraordinary singer and performer. And like Smith, Blythe is, in every way, a star. San Diego Opera is indeed fortunate to have this stellar artist as a champion and advocate of the company’s valiant and successful efforts to maintain this valuable arts organization as a key part of the city’s heritage.

God Bless America.

Blythe-Terry photo used by permission of Kevin Yatarola
Erica Miner can be contacted at [email protected]