Sunday, May 24, 2015

San Diego Symphony Season Finale a Burst of Sunshine

By Erica Miner

The final offering of the 2014-15 San Diego Jacobs Masterworks series this weekend featured Music Director Jahja Ling conducting two weathered favorites and one lesser-known but appealing work. Beethoven’s somber, deeply introspective Piano Concerto No. 3, played with stunning virtuosity by Stephen Hough, was bookended by the otherworldly Musica Celestis for string orchestra by Aaron Jay Kernis and the earthly but radiant Brahms Symphony No. 2, thus closing the season on an optimistic, sunlit note. 

Kernis, whose String Quartet No. 2 won the Pulitzer Prize in 1998, based Celestis on the slow movement of his 1990 String Quartet No. 1. The 11-minute piece provided ample opportunity for the outstanding solo players within the SDS string sections to shine, both celestially and instrumentally. Using a spectrum of colors and effects in all ranges, the composer painted an atmosphere of tranquility in the initial and closing episodes, while adding streaks of lightning-quick virtuoso passages in the middle section. Shades of the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Lohengrin in the always-brilliant key of A major during the opening, sprinkled with hints of Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings, metamorphosed into a unique work in which Kernis’ distinctive style predominated. In his first time conducting this work with SDS, Ling gently and expansively encouraged the SDS strings to generate their characteristic shimmering sound, thus enhancing the aural vision of heavenly loveliness. 

Beethoven likely was in the throes of working on his only opera Fidelio when he premiered his third piano concerto in C minor in 1803. Certain melodic and rhythmic patterns from the opera are hinted at during throughout the concerto, but most overwhelming are the similarities to Mozart’s C minor piano concerto No. 24, one of only two that Mozart wrote in a minor key (the other was his D minor concerto, No. 20).

Renowned pianist Stephen Hough’s performance brought to mind all of these elements and more. The directness of his precise technique cleared the way for the melodies and rhythms to emerge from the fiendishly difficult technical challenges to present a crystalline succession of musical patterns without overemphasizing the aggressive nature of either the key or the work as a whole. His command and knowledge of the work and of Beethovenian style, coupled with his versatile background as a performer, writer and composer, produced a rendering that was at once technically proficient and erudite. Ling provided a solid foundation for the soloist in his balanced, well-defined accompaniment. 

As Beethoven was inspired, and perhaps intimidated, by Mozart, Brahms had a hard act to follow in his symphonic giant of a predecessor. However, once Brahms had completed his elegiac C minor Symphony No. 1, he seemed to have freed himself of the burden he had felt from Beethoven’s presence by creating the sunlit, pastoral atmosphere of his Symphony No. 2 in D major. 

In his capacious rendering of the Brahms, Ling opened up the cloud covered atmosphere established by the melancholy Beethoven concerto to let in one after another ray of musical sunshine, and his orchestra responded with a performance that justifiably electrified the audience. One would never have known that this was the first time Ling was performing the work with his orchestra in a Masterworks series. His background and knowledge of European tradition in composition and performance were keenly in evidence as, conducting without a score, he built the magnificence of the piece layer by layer until the full power of the orchestral forces burst forth in a wave of ebullient virtuosity, allowing the optimism of the work to shine through. The outstanding French horn section was at the forefront of the stirring playing displayed by the orchestra as a whole. 

This lively, upbeat season finale paved the way for an upcoming season that promises more excitement on stage for Ling and his gifted ensemble, with works old and new, seasoned and lesser known but promising artists. After a performance such as was heard this weekend, there is much to look forward to in the fall. 

Tickets for the upcoming San Diego Symphony Masterworks season are available at:

Photos used by permission of: Brianna Houston/Christian Steiner
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, May 22, 2015

Tenor René Barbera is in Love With Opera

By Erica Miner

Recipient of the Mabel Dorn Reeder Foundation Prize by Opera Theater of St. Louis as well as three prizes in Plácido Domingo’s Operalia Competition, and already one of the most beloved tenors on the contemporary operatic stage, René Barbera seems unstoppable. His star is not just rising; it already has found its place in the operatic firmament. 

With roots in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s Ryan Opera Center, he stands firmly in the bel canto tradition, but has dabbled in Verdi and Mozart and is poised to leap into Berlioz territory with his upcoming Les Troyens engagement with San Francisco Opera in June and July. I caught up with him shortly after his stunning debut in San Diego Opera’s recent 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert  ( brought audiences to their feet. 

EM: Before we get into your background, tell us all about the exciting new announcement you made recently. 

RB: I will be performing a recital in San Diego on September 19th at the Balboa Theater to kick off the San Diego Opera’s season!!

EM: How clever of SDO to grab you for the opening of next season. You must be thrilled.

RB: I’m so excited! This is my first professional American recital. 

EM: I for one can’t wait. Let’s go back in time a bit to your background. Where did you grow up? 

RB: I was born in Laredo, Texas, and lived there until I was 9. But I actually grew up in San Antonio.

EM: When and how did you become passionate about opera? 

RB: I recall being in my first opera, Hansel & Gretel (I was a rock on stage... literally), and what made me truly fall in love with Opera were the goings-on backstage. I really found myself enjoying the people who worked behind the scenes, and being captivated by what it took to keep the show going from the backstage point of view. The rest has come over time. The more I am a part of this art form, the more it becomes a part of me. 

EM: You’re about to venture into exciting new territory: Iopas in Les Troyens and Giannetto in La Gazza Ladra. After singing multiple roles typical of your fach, are you now being attracted to more unusual repertoire? 

RB: Honestly, I am not really “attracted” to unusual repertoire per se... There are definitely roles that I’m dying to sing at this point but, for the most part, I sing what I’m hired to sing that is appropriate for my voice. That said, I am always very excited to learn something new and to have the opportunity to explore new characters and new story lines. Iopas will be my first professional experience with Berlioz, and so far I can say that this is, hands down, some of the most gorgeous music I've ever heard. My fellow colleagues are all absolutely incredible singers and performers and we are all having a grand (pun intended) time. 

EM: Do you feel equally comfortable in Italian and French opera? 

RB: Italian is like home to me. French, however, is a little less comfortable. I LOVE singing in that language. It’s wonderful for the voice. The issue I have at this point with French is that I have to REALLY focus on what others are singing around me in order to understand what the individual words are... which makes acting rather difficult. In Italian I hear a word and I know where it begins, where it ends, and what it means. French, being such a new language for me, doesn’t come so easily. That said, I LOVE French music and look forward to singing more of it in the future! 

EM: As we look forward to hearing you. How would you compare performing in the States to performing in Europe?

RB: For me, atmosphere is everything. There is something magical about performing somewhere different. I guess, ultimately, the actual performing is not much different. Sometimes the rehearsal process is different… either more relaxed or more strict but mostly it’s just performing. The audiences are similar, though less predictable in Europe, but the actual experience of BEING in Europe, for me, is what makes the difference.
I will say, however, that after several months in Europe at a time, there is nothing like being back in the States. Nothing makes me feel that more than being sick in a country whose language you can, at best, butcher enough to order produce and having to try to explain your symptoms. 

EM: What roles have you not yet sung that you would like to perform? 

RB: Well the roles I haven’t yet sung that I have on my radar as dream roles are parts that I just SHOULDN’T sing yet and likely won’t for some time, if ever. There are roles I've performed that I’d LOVE to have a healthier dose of... Nemorino, Tonio, Elvino, Arturo, etc... The roles I shouldn’t yet sing, if ever, are: Rodolfo, Alfredo, Cavaradossi, Faust, Romeo, Nadir and such. 

EM: From what we heard at the SDO Celebration Concert, I personally would love to hear you sing Pearl Fishers. What are your plans, both immediate and future? 

RB: Well, as you’ve mentioned I will be singing in Les Troyens at San Francisco Opera and La Gazza Ladra at the Rossini Opera Festival. And of course my recital for the San Diego Opera on September 19th at the Balboa Theatre! After that I return to San Francisco for the Barber of Seville and that completes my 2015. 

EM: Will we also have the pleasure of seeing you perform in an operatic role for SDO? 

RB: I certainly hope so! I am quite fond of the San Diego audience, the city, the people, the views, and the folks at the opera. I was welcomed so wonderfully in April and fell in love with San Diego. Not sure when it will be or what opera… but I really hope it is soon! 

EM: As do we! Thanks so much for taking the time to give us your insights. 

RB: Thanks for taking the time to speak with me!!

Photo used with permission of: San Diego Opera

Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Lucas Meachem Fills His Pie Pan with Opera

By Erica Miner

San Diego Opera fans first had the pleasure of seeing American baritone Lucas Meachem ( rock the role of Figaro in Il Barbiere di Siviglia in 2012. A natural on stage, he performed with unique comic flair and dazzled the audience with the power and beauty of his voice.

Now a major operatic presence nationally and internationally, Meachem is about to take Europe by storm with an extended tour including London, Lucerne, Copenhagen and Monte Carlo. I caught up with him before leaving for London, where he will sing in La bohème at Covent Garden starting May 23.

EM: Lucas, I remember your delightful Barber at San Diego Opera ( I’ll get to that shortly. First I wanted to ask you where you grew up and how and when you became passionate about opera.

LM: Those are involved questions. [Laughs]. I was born in Raleigh, North Carolina, and grew up in a small city called Carthage. There were very few cultural experiences, and I didn’t seek them out. I was an absolute sports man. I loved football, basketball, baseball. I worked as a takeout guy cooking fried seafood and hush puppies at a seafood place. When I was eight years old I knew I wanted to sing but didn’t know what shape that would take. I sang in the choir in high school, auditioned for all the solos. Then I thought, “I’ll go study singing.” I went to a small college in the mountains of North Carolina, Appalachian State University, and studied singing. About a semester away from graduating I was offered a full scholarship to Eastman. I thought, “I’ll go there, that’s better.” A year away from graduating I got offered a position at Yale with a full scholarship. I thought, “Yale’s a good name, I’ll go there instead.” A year away from getting a degree there I was offered the San Francisco Young Artists program, 2004-5. Three schools and one opera company in 10 years and no degrees. [Laughs] 

EM: Involved, yes, but the progression seems natural and quite impressive. After San Francisco Artists did you go to another young artist program, or did you start to perform?

LM: After that I was released into the big, bad world of opera. [Laughs] I was like an animal being released into the wild.

EM: The jungle that is the music world?

LM: Yes. I had been kept in a very safe environment up until then. It was an interesting ride, because I had no opportunities ahead of me. [Laughs] Just a few small gigs here and there.

EM: In what cities did you perform your first few years?

LM: My first professional job was with Ohio Light Opera, a small company in Wooster, Ohio, the summer of 2000, the only company in the United States that does a different show every night of the week, which is incredible - mostly light opera and musical theater. I had to do eight shows and be in the chorus of four, small roles in maybe three, leading roles in one or two. It was like Opera Boot Camp. A sink or swim environment where you either did well or crashed and burned. I got thrown into the deep end and thrived, because I can memorize stuff incredibly fast. Really small amount of time to put up a show. We put up Pirates of Penzance in three days, quite an undertaking. Every subsequent company I worked for has seemed easy by comparison.

EM: Obviously you swam like an Olympian.

LM: I grew fins!

EM: What was your big debut?

LM: Definitely Chicago Lyric Opera in 2006, Iphigénie en Tauride on three weeks notice. Simon Keenlyside pulled out. It was a sudden, spur of the moment thing.

EM: I’m sure your background in Ohio prepared you to jump on that.

LM: Absolutely. I’ve just got a crazy brain, I’m no genius by any means, but my brain works perfectly for opera. I memorize words and music quickly, choreography, action and staging in the moment. In Ohio, you had to put an action to every word. I developed a system in my brain where all those wires connected. Now I’m able to remember everything a director tells me, to regurgitate ideas immediately onto the stage. 

EM: For the antics you had to cavort in for Barber, your athletic background must’ve come in handy. Did you find it difficult to keep producing that gorgeous sound when you’re sliding down a pole and getting dressed? 

LM: [Laughs] Not really. The years of training and practicing prepared me for it. It’s like asking the guy that won the World Series if he’s feeling the extra pressure. You go in there, the game happens and you just do it. The only bit of difficulty was getting dressed in that amount of time. Every piece of clothing had a musical moment that had to happen. But going up-and-down a pole…well, for a country boy it’s about the easiest thing to do. 

EM: Drawing from Mozart, Verismo, Puccini, Billy Budd - is there one that you feel is more enjoyable, or more the right fach for you? 

LM: Good question. There’s quite a stark difference. Verismo can be harsh sometimes. The most difficult thing is living the emotion in your voice. It’s nice to relax into Mozart, just sing and let the emotion ring through the music. I don’t approach it any differently as far as the vocal production, but I do find it harder to stay within my bel canto technique, then going right into Verismo.

EM: Is Italian the most comfortable language for you?

LM: Actually, French lyric opera is my number one. I love Italian and German opera, but I feel the way my voice resonates is exactly French opera. I love singing in French. 

EM: Singers I’ve interviewed have said that French as a language is difficult to sing, though it may lie comfortably for the voice. Do you feel that way? 

LM: No, I feel totally comfortable in French. It’s all about modification. If you’re uncomfortable with something in French you can modify it. A French diction coach would tell you to sing an incredibly closed “o” vowel on certain things. You just have to know that to sing in a house full of people you can’t close an “o” vowel like a nasal vowel, like in “cochon”. You have to [Sings] make sure it’s resonant in the house. I’ll sing different vowels in a recital for two hundred people than I would in an opera for two or three thousand. It’s all about how close you are with the audience and how much voice you need to give. There are so many different layers to it. I always think of opera as this pie. Every time I feel like I’ve filled a whole pie pan with music and knowledge and language, I look down the table and see a hundred empty pie pans to fill. The more you learn, the more you realize you need to learn. 

EM: You’ve done Wolfram in Tannhaüser. Is there more Wagner in your future, or other German roles up your sleeve? 

LM: Possibly Meistersinger. Not Hans Sachs, but Pogner. Then there’s Amfortas. I do love Korngold’s Die Tote Stadt. I’ve sung the dual roles of Frank-Fritz in San Francisco and Madrid. It’s an opera that should be performed more. 

EM: What other roles have you not yet sung that you would like to sing? 

LM: Rodrigo in Don Carlos. I would love to sing that. 

EM: Especially in French? 

LM: Especially in French. In a way, it’s a coming of age role for a lyric baritone. It says, “I’ve done the Mozart, the Rossini, I’m now ready to move into this Verdi repertoire.” 

EM: Do you have French roles coming up? 

LM: I’m singing Les Troyens for the first time, possibly Pearl Fishers, one of the roles I sing best. Everyone underestimates the role of Zurga. It’s become one of these roles where they hire people for their six-packs rather than their ability to sing it, and it’s not a role you can do that with. The reason people can get away with it is because people don’t know the opera. It’s a terrible double standard that opera is having to deal with right now, looks vs. singing. Looks are winning out more than voice these days. 

EM: Do you think that, except for the famous duet, the rest of the music in Pearl Fishers isn’t that familiar because it’s not the most oft-performed Bizet opera? 

LM: Absolutely. People don’t know the opera well enough. The problem is, the plot’s ridiculous. But the music is gorgeous. If a director can come up with a Pearl Fishers that people really believe in, it could be the next big opera, because opera houses only have to hire three really good singers, a chorus, and one secondary bass-baritone. 

EM: The music is sublime, perfect for smaller companies like San Diego Opera. Speaking of SDO, Is there any possibility of see you here again in the future? 

LM: I had such a good time in San Diego. All it would take is an open schedule and an invitation. 

EM: What else is coming up for you? 

LM: I’m really excited about doing my first Germont and Malatesta. It’s been a while since I’ve introduced a new role. These two roles show the evolution of my career. There’s an old opera joke, “What are the four stages of your operatic career?” The first one is, “Who’s Lucas Meachem?” The second, “Give me Lucas Meachem.” The third, “We have Lucas Meachem.” Then the fourth, “Who’s Lucas Meachem?” [Laughs] 

EM: A lot like Hollywood. 

LM: It’s nice to see my career evolve, from mostly Mozart and Rossini and La bohème into a little more meat on the bone, vocally. 

EM: Germont is a big one. Is there anything you’d like to add? 

LM: I just got engaged to a beautiful woman who is a pianist and an opera coach, so I feel like I have set up a team take me to the next level and beyond. I’m really happy with where my career is. Now I have a lovely woman in my life who listens to me on stage and gives me immediate feedback on what I need to do better. 

EM: All you have to do is raise a chorus. Just kidding. 

LM: [Laughs] We’ll get there. 

EM: Sounds like you’re about to take off and fly. Enjoy your tour. 

LM: Thanks so much.

Photos used by permission of: Natasha Sadikin/Met Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Sunday, May 17, 2015

LA Master Chorale: Whitacre and Pärt … but so much more

By Douglas Neslund

Dear Grant,

Their voices become light, And the light sings …” is a perfect textual parody for the concert you offered us over the last two nights. But light needs a focus, and you are the focus, the prism, for that light to become music beyond mere notes on paper.

Thank you for the illuminating music of Eric Whitacre and Arvo Pärt, in their own unique way composers of completely different origins who understand the human voice and the shimmering magic of Nature’s overtone patterns so often unheard and constricted by tuning of equal temperament or covered by instrumental accompaniment, but clearly heard in an a cappella performance.

“And the angels in the glass, Softly sang …”

You keep telling us that you are “the luckiest” person to be able to stand in front of such a consortium of singing musicians, but one suspects they would not be quite so bright, quite so musical, without the prism that is you, focusing their voices and radiating their light.

“Light filled the chamber …”

Thank you for the 14 years of music, old and new, familiar and unheard, harmonic and otherwise, that you and the Master Chorale have offered. Obviously, the fact that the public now has two opportunities to hear each of the items on the schedule is testament to the choral excellence you have developed over that time. We have enjoyed watching you grow as a musician, too. Baroque, for example, was an uncertain link in your baton, but now is a mastered art form.

“She heard her voice Echo, …”

Thank you for being a good friend to so many. You must also take stock of your own needs, and guard your health! We all tend to take good health for granted, but flying long hours to conduct just one performance, then flying long hours again back … your resume doesn’t need enhancement. We need for that magic that is your focus to continue far into the future: whole, healthy and as youthfully adventurous as always.

“Holy, Holy, Holy. …”

Have a blessed and thrilling summer festival season, Grant, and come back in the Fall recharged and renewed, once again to bless those who are the lucky ones, the ones who get to hear the shimmering overtones and sometimes lusty roar of beauty that is the Los Angeles Master Chorale.


A personal note, if I may … this is my last regular LA Opus review, as a move out of state is in the offing. Editor Rod Punt has graciously invited occasional reviews from the new location, and I have gratefully accepted his kind offer.

Elliot Goldenthal - A Composer Grows in Brooklyn

By Erica Miner

Nominated for the Pulitzer Prize in classical music, Elliot Goldenthal is one of the most versatile of contemporary composers. His oeuvre includes film, opera, ballet, symphony and theater, as well as chamber music. He has won Oscar, Golden Globe and World Soundtrack Awards for Best Original Music for the film Frida (2002), directed by Julie Taymor, and last March received the ASCAP Founders Award in Los Angeles. Recently it was announced that Goldenthal has won the 1st annual Wojciech Kilar Award, celebrating the accomplishments of one of the most recognizable Polish film composers of the 20th and 21st centuries. 

Goldenthal is best known for his film scores to Titus (1999), Frida (2002), Across The Universe (2007), The Tempest (2010) and most recently A Midsummer Night’s Dream (2015), all directed by Julie Taymor, as well as the Neil Jordan films Interview with the Vampire (1994) and Michael Collins (1996), for which Goldenthal received Oscar nominations. He also composed original music and soundscapes for the Julie Taymor-directed play Grounded starring Anne Hathaway (, which opened on April 26 and runs through May 24 at the Public Theater in New York.

Three big Goldenthal projects take place this month. His ballet Othello will have its revival premiere as part of the American Ballet Theatre’s 75th anniversary season at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York with performances from May 19-21. The ballet, which received its Joffrey and Chicago premiere in 2009, was co-produced by American Ballet Theatre in partnership with San Francisco Ballet and choreographed by Lar Lubovitch. An album for Goldenthal’s Othello Symphony, which reworks the principal moments of the three-act music drama into a symphonic context, was released in April 2014. 

Also in May, Goldenthal’s Symphony in G Sharp Minor (Orange County Register’s Reger Award for “Best New Symphony”) will be released as an album. Beginning June 21, a cinematic theatrical experience of A Midsummer Night’s Dream directed by Julie Taymor with original music by Goldenthal, which had its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2014, will be released as a special event screening in selected theatres in the US, Canada and the UK. 

EM: Growing up in Brooklyn you didn’t come from a musical background. Yet you’ve composed so much music in so many genres. What led you on that journey? 

EG: My mother was a seamstress, my father a house painter, but everything around me was musical. My neighbors, literally in terms of walking distance - John Corigliano, who later became my teacher for seven years, was living on Church Avenue, Aaron Copland in downtown Brooklyn, and I was living in Flatbush. The environment of Brooklyn was very healthy and beneficial for young composers. And so many cultural characters passed through there - many ethnic influences and a very lively, if not loud, introduction to the world’s music. 

EM: So music surrounded you. 

EG: Classical music was being played all over. A lot of the Eastern Jewish families, Italian families, protected their old cultural heritage by playing Beethoven, Mozart and Verdi. That was very important. The young people of course were varying that. On a subway ride you got to hear all the greatest jazz inventors being played - Miles Davis, John Coltrane. Brooklyn was remarkable, so full of musical choices, so many wonderful tangible ways of experiencing music there during the 1960s and 70s. Everything seemed to be ingrown right there in the New York City area. The New York Philharmonic was at their peak at the time. Lenny Bernstein was reaching out to young people in a giant way, and Aaron Copland was his teacher, so I got to know Lenny in a very natural way being with Aaron and Lenny on many occasions, and was lucky enough to compose an anniversary piece for Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday. 

EM: I was lucky to have worked with Lenny at Tanglewood. 

EG: It was at Tanglewood that I first met Aaron. He said to me, “Elliot, I want you to meet my friend George.” It was George Balanchine. At 18 years old that’s a little awesome. 

EM: It must have made quite an impression. And New York sounds like a very rich musical atmosphere to have grown up in. 

EG: Absolutely. When Pierre Boulez took over the New York Philharmonic, you had a controversial yet whole different approach listening to music and presenting contemporary music. When Brooklyn Academy of Music presented Einstein on the Beach in the late 70s it was an alternative way of expressing yourself musically. New York City Opera was performing contemporary works and serious classical works. My opera, Grendel, was performed there. 

EM: Aside from Copland and Corigliano, did any other composers, either classical or film, influence you? 

EG: Bernard Herrmann was a big influence. Anyone who starts out as a 19-year-old writing Citizen Kane as a first movie - his last movie was Taxi Driver - and in between, all the great Hitchcock movies, is pretty special. Also European composers like Nino Rota, who composed Neo-Realist music - very melodic driven, most famous of which is of course the theme to The Godfather - all the brilliant works and operas he wrote. He was a very special person, always discovering, always creating wonderful things. That’s not to negate the avant-garde contributions in film and composition like Penderecki. 

EM: Speaking of which, congratulations on being the first to receive the Wojciech Kilar Award ( 

EG: Thank you. I’m very proud to be honored with this first Polish national prize next week. Kilar had a full, full career. Over 128 film scores, probably five symphonies, four operas. He just died recently in Poland. So to receive that award where Penderecki and Roman Polanski were on the board is a very proud thing for me. Shortly after that I have a giant concert of my four Shakespeare symphonic works, Titus Andronicus, Tempest and the Othello ballet - which is at the Metropolitan Opera this coming week - and Midsummer Night’s Dream, a movie that’s premiering June 15 and opening widely after that, which Julie Taymor directed. So it’s a really rich season for me.

 EM: You have a long-standing working relationship with Julie Taymor. Artistically speaking, what is the common ground for you? 

EG: Complexity in character. In Shakespeare no one character operates a single way. It’s all about complex reactions to other things in life. You can’t say, “He’s a bad guy, he’s a good guy, she’s the good daughter, she’s the bad daughter.” It’s very complex. Shakespeare has so many layers, a deep trough of philosophical thought. It’s not only dramatic but it has a philosophical state of mind. And it’s contemporary for all times, short of the details of history like Richard III or Henry IV. The content is absolutely contemporary, psychologically. 

EM: Contemporary and universal, and the characters are all interdependent. 

EG: That’s right. I’m also proud to share my Symphony in G# Minor, which just became available on May 12 on CD with the wonderful Pacific Symphony Orchestra and Carl St. Clair. I’m very happy about that release. They really played it beautifully. 

EM: As a violinist, I couldn’t help wondering why you chose that unusual key.

EG: I grew up in a very modest home in a lower middle class in Brooklyn. We had a ratty spinet piano. For some reason the only key that sounded good with full-bodied tone was A-flat. I used to go back and my fingers would land on A-flat because it sounded better. Through the years I remembered how comfortable I was in and around that key. It’s kind of obscure but a musician would know. You travel around the United States especially, everything is in B-flat. All the refrigerators, all the lights, all you hear is B-flat. Then when you get into the concert hall everyone starts to tune to A. It’s weird. You’re living in a B-flat world, an A world. when I start the piece in G# minor, it’s a different world, a different soundscape. Technically with the violins, I realize you don’t have many options with open tones there. The sections come together like a community, because everyone’s listening to each other in a good way, being very careful of the intonation, perhaps another level of concentration. You really do have to think about it because it’s not something that naturally comes from the open D. It’s apart from that.

EM: Interesting concept. I’m picturing placing my finger on a G# on the D string. I’m really glad I asked that question. 

EG: If you listen through the whole first movement, it sort of grounds around G#, then comes to this big expansive Adagio, then lulls you back into G#. All of a sudden with absolutely purity, a tutti orchestra B minor chord finally comes in, just a single forte, not triple forte, without pushing it too much. People jump out of their seats when they hear all these open strings playing, and open tones in the woodwinds. Boom!

EM: It comes out of nowhere and has great shock value, but also a bit of a relief? 

EG: A relief, yes. To hear those overtones functioning in that way. 

EM: You’ve also written an opera, Grendel.

EG: Yes. It was performed at New York City Opera and Los Angeles Opera. Very successful run. It’s grand opera, a big piece. Children’s chorus, soloists, large 88-piece orchestra. I was lucky to have it performed and I’d be happy about that leading to another performance, sometime while I’m still alive perhaps [Laughs]. Still working on and improving it. Los Angeles has been very good to me. California in general because they co-commissioned the Othello ballet, the Symphony, and my oratorio Fire Water Paper, which Seiji Ozawa toured with the Boston Symphony Orchestra throughout the US, including Carnegie Hall. So that connection in California is very rewarding to me. 

EG: Would you be open to L.A. Opera commissioning another opera from you? 

EG: Absolutely. They were extremely supportive. I know (L.A. Opera CEO) Christopher Koelsch is trying to drum up some ideas. Placido was very strong in presenting what I wanted without meddling. 

EM: As we wrap up, is there anything you would like to add? 

EG: Last year at this time I released my first string quartet piece, The Stone Cutters. I’m very proud of the performance that’s available on CD with the Flux Quartet. It starts out very complex, gets simpler and simpler and ends on a very lyrical, simple note. Almost like a path of a person who needs to scurry around in his life very industriously, then toward the end everything gets simpler and rather beautiful. 

EM: I look forward to hearing it. Thank you so much for sharing your many accomplishments with us. 

EG: And thank you.

Photo used by permission of: Marco Guerra (Elliot Goldenthal), Joan Marcus (Grounded), Gene Schiavone (Othello)
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Librettist Claudia Stevens 'Springs' to Life

By Erica Miner

Glowing reviews have abounded for Middlemarch in Spring, the latest operatic effort of librettist Claudia Stevens ( Based in the Bay Area, Stevens wears many hats: librettist, playwright, a contributing director of new music series Sonic Harvest in Berkeley and Visiting Scholar at William & Mary College in Virginia among them.

A collaboration with composer Allen Shearer gave birth to Middlemarch in Spring, a full-length adaptation of George Eliot’s imposing novel. One of four chamber operas Stevens has created with Shearer, Middlemarch premiered in San Francisco on March 19, 2015.

EM: Congratulations on your success with Middlemarch, Claudia. Tell us about your background. 

CS: Thank you, Erica. Middlemarch in Spring did achieve success, not only with reviewers but with our audience in San Francisco, which was especially gratifying. I was born and raised in a very small Northern California town but have always felt my voice as a writer to be more British than American. My parents, Jews from Central Europe, escaped from Hitler and found refuge in British Palestine and in England before coming to America. So I grew up reading Victorian novels and speaking very much like an English child, studying piano, drama and singing - ultimately taking music very seriously. I worked with great teachers including Leon Fleisher and Leonard Shure. My first career was as a pianist - you and I knew each other as young musicians at Tanglewood, as I recall. 

EM: We did indeed. At what point were you bitten by the writing bug? 

CS: This happened when my career as a pianist morphed into a quite active solo “performance art” career, where I combined keyboard playing with speaking, singing and dramatic acting. The technical demands and possibilities were quite singular - so I found myself creating my own repertoire. That included text creation and, later on, music composition. I was also my own director, making such decisions as where speech should elide into singing and where movement away from the keyboard should happen. Short experimental works soon grew into full-length solo pieces - some twenty works over two decades. Several of these mono play texts were chosen to appear in André Codrescu's poetry journal, Exquisite Corpse. In a number of my pieces I portrayed multiple characters, using staging, costumes, hats, even noses, to switch from one to another. My experience and comfort level in writing for the stage evolved in this way. Writing was something I came to do out of necessity, in order to generate new pieces for my own performance. 

EM: How did that evolve into writing libretti? 

CS: It is a similar process to create text for other performer/singers. Knowing about vocal placement - what words and phrases sing well - is essential. But also, choosing the story is critically important. One has to be able to visualize quite early on how the whole opera will work: whether singing will enhance the story and serve the drama, and vice versa. One must have characters in mind that can be created musically and dramatically. Without interesting and distinctive characters opera can be a bland affair. While a focus on contemporary relevance - making connections to contemporary issues - can sharpen the experience for an audience, for me opera is always about story and character. 

EM: How long have you and Allen been working together? 

CS: In 2006 Allen wrote the incidental music for my solo play Blue Lias, about Victorian fossil hunter Mary Anning. Because it tied in with the hot topic of women in science, as well as controversies about science and religion, I had many invitations to perform the piece. During that time Allen and I also were working on our first chamber opera, The Dawn Makers, a fanciful one-act based on the Greek myth of Eos and Tithonos. Its 2009 premiere at Herbst Theater in San Francisco featured tenor John Duykers and was a wonderful success. We also created a droll one-act for three male singers, A Very Large Mole, based on a Kafka short story, which had performances in Berkeley and San Francisco in 2010, as well as an opera, Riddle Me, for youth audiences commissioned by the Opera Theater at UC, Santa Cruz, performed there in 2011 and elsewhere in 2012. The story of Riddle Me was based on a Grimm’s fairy tale but updated for a contemporary young audience. Middlemarch in Spring is our fourth opera and fifth collaborative work. 

EM: Why did you choose ‘Middlemarch’? Did it take a long time to come to fruition?

CS: The opera was born of my passion for the novel and came to fruition over four years of painstaking and inspired work by Allen. It began when he asked me to come up with a single opera scene for two females and one male to present on a small concert series. I thought of the opening chapter of George Eliot's Middlemarch, where two sisters divide their mother's jewels, revealing so much about their own characters while their clueless uncle spouts platitudes. Before we knew it, the possibility to develop a full length opera completely took hold of us. I wrote the libretto for a two-act opera in six scenes with six characters in a matter of weeks. The scenes would project the novel's main story of Dorothea, leaving out parallel plots and characters. Text revisions would be necessitated by the evolving musical score, but the trajectory of the whole work, its essential structure, was present from the beginning.

EM: How did you decide to use projections in the production? 

CS: In 2011 and 2012 we put on semi-staged versions of several scenes for the concert series Sonic Harvest. We were ready to forge ahead and complete the opera, scored for 11 instruments, by summer of 2014. Condensing a huge work of fiction that I love deeply into a two-hour opera, while striving to retain its underlying values as well as the author's voice, occupied my thought and energy throughout the entire process so much that I often don't know what text is George Eliot's and what is my own. I thought of including another voice - that of a dramaturg or the author - to provide commentary at certain points. This seemed artificial. I then had the idea to use projections to convey a psychological landscape, allowing the audience actually to "see" what the characters might be imagining - their unspoken motivations, yearnings and fears. The early Romantic period was rich in erotic, often frightening imagery. I found some of William Blake’s pictures especially potent in conveying moments of the characters’ terror, mysticism and revelation. Allen created wonderfully evocative music to accompany those moments, and our projection designer, Jeremy Knight, brought those and his own images into beautiful realization.

EM: Do you have plans for another collaboration with Allen? 

CS: While Middlemarch in Spring was in rehearsal, Allen was at work on Kissing Marfa, a short dramatic work for mixed chorus and soloists based on a funny short story by Chekhov. It is slated to be performed at Cal State, East Bay next year. And we have been brainstorming about another project, a major new full-length opera, which we hope will capture the interest of an opera company in future. 

EM: Will Middlemarch in Spring be performed elsewhere in the future?

CS: That is our hope. We think - and so do colleagues, as well as reviewers - that it has all the ingredients to enter the permanent repertoire of chamber operas.

Photos used by permission of: Jim Dennis/Jeremy Knight
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Dresden Music Festival Themes 2015 with Fire and Ice

View of Dresden from the River Elbe (Yahoo stock)

Preview by Rodney Punt

Viewed from high balustraded walls, the sinewy River Elbe bisects the city of Dresden, sauntering like a lazy snake alongside the town center. But when provoked by heavy rains, as in recent years, the Elbe can rise to cover the Saxon capital’s streets, giving it the eerie appearance of a Venice without the gondolas.

Such a watery landscape is suggested by the theme of this year’s Dresden Music Festival. Dubbed “Fire Ice,” its music has a lot of hot-and-wet Venice about it, but also just as much of cold-and-icy Helsinki. A whiplash of climate zones is the point of focus for works from Scandinavia and the Mediterranean, opposite boundaries of European geography. Northern composers, so it is observed, take pen and ink to score under the influence long shadows and cold twilight, differing in sensibility from their sun-drenched Southern counterparts. That dynamic is springboard for a clash of musical sensibilities slated to converge on the Saxon capital for a jammed-packed three weeks starting in mid-May.

The centrifugal focus also slyly emphasizes Dresden’s growing preeminence in the European musical firmament. Like rivaling Vienna, but less so of the more northerly Berlin, this historic city of trade routes has always stood at a musical crossroads. While the Festival advances the term ‘North-South divide’ with due caution, it sees not so much a competition as a creative contrast between stereotypes of the North’s severe intellectualism and the South’s natural lyricism. Embracing both, the theme also reminds us of successful accommodations struck here between the city’s Protestant population and its Catholic court in otherwise less tolerant historic eras.

There is a time dimension to this north-south juxtaposition. Most of the Scandinavian composers, apart from Grieg and Sibelius, are contemporary, reflecting that region’s leadership role in modern-era innovation. By contrast, many of the representative Mediterranean composers are from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, reflecting the general trend of earlier-era musical innovations advancing from south to north; contemporary southern composers tend to represent world music styles.

Dresden Music Festival and its Modern-Era Music Capital

No city in Germany has experienced more dramatic comebacks than Dresden, the Baroque-splendored former seat of Saxon royalty that, seventy years on from war-torn devastation and more recent flooding, has seen its jewel-box center fully restored and its palaces, concert halls and galleries once again brim with patrons. In the last five years, festival ticket revenues have swelled, as has attendance at events that now approach capacity seating. Audiences from outside of Germany, an important tourist component, have reportedly doubled in the last five years.

Launched by the GDR in 1978, the Festival has been helmed since 2009 by cellist and cultural entrepreneur Jan Vogler. A protean presence on the central European music scene, Vogler has just extended his contract as intendant to 2021, while also leading each August the nearby Moritzburg Chamber Music Festival. Vogler’s line-up of programs ranges from a generous gaggle of orchestral works, to vocal compositions, a youth opera, workshops and open air concerts, solo piano pieces, works for dance ensembles, chamber quartets and trios, children’s concerts, and even oddities like the group Barocklounge in an evening of “Alehouse Session.”

The Dresden Music Festival’s big-ticket performances -- quite apart from its other fine ensembles and soloists -- are its orchestras in residence, which this year display a range of repertoire and styles that could fill a couple of continents. In fact they do just that. From Helsinki to Venice, Philadelphia to Rome, they set a standard for quality and variety that put many other festivals in the shade.

The venues for this year’s concerts are, of themselves, worth the price of admission. Exquisite Baroque splendors like the Semperoper, the restored Frauenkirche, and the brocaded castles at Pillnitz, Wackerbarth, and Albrechtsberg will dazzle the eye, and soon delight the ear. The historic Martin-Luther-Kirche, Kreuzkirche, the Albertinum and Festspielhaus Hellerau the Messe Dresden and ultra modern glass-and-steel facilities like the Gläserne Manufaktur von Volkswagen and the Hochschule für Musik Konzertsaal round out and complement the city’s storied historic character for the verzauberte Besucher (enchanted visitor).

Opening Night Gala

Dresden Festival Orchestra
The three-week festival formally kicks off on May 14 with a gala evening of the Dresden Festival Orchestra at the Messe Dresden, an event and convention center reconfigured for the occasion as a concert hall. Founded in 2012 by Vogler, with handpicked musicians from Europe’s renowned period ensembles, the DFO is a throwback to the court bands of Augustus II "The Strong," Dresden’s golden-age monarch of the eighteenth century. Recently the ensemble has taken on works in the Romantic tradition, as it will, under the baton of Ivor Bolton, when it couples Grieg’s Peer Gynt with works by Rossini, Mascagni, Verdi and Bizet. The north-south musical cocktail will set the tone, and the tones, for the next three weeks.

2015 Concert Summary: Orchestra Concerts

The Dresden Festival Orchestra has a second outing with Bolton in Beethoven's Violin Concerto, with violinist Isabelle Faust, the Saxon Robert Schumann’s Second Symphony and Mendelssohn’s Hebrides Overture. The Helsinki Baroque Orchestra under conductor Aapo Häkkinen performs Handel arias and Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate, featuring soprano Julia Lezhneva. The Swedish Radio Symphony Orchestra and Daniel Harding have Nikolaj Znaider’s violin in the Sibelius Violin Concerto, with Albert Schnelzer’s Tales from Suburbia and the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique.

Michael Sanderling and the Dresdner Philharmonie give the world premiere of the Swede Tobias Broström’s Concerto for two Percussionists and Orchestra with the Sibelius Finlandia and his Second Symphony. The pan-German Deutsche Streicherphilharmonie (string orchestra), under Wolfgang Hentrich, features violinist Chad Hoopes in works by Kilar, Mendelssohn, Bruch, Sibelius, and Grieg. The Philadelphia Orchestra makes an Atlantic crossing, not to Dresden but to a DMF-sponsored performance at the Berlin Konzerthaus, with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, in Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony and Shostakovich’s First Violin Concerto, with violinist Lisa Batiashvili.

Sir Antonio Pappano’s Orchestra dell'Accademia Nazionale di Santa Cecilia will feature Vogler and his cello in Tchaikovsky’s Rococo Variations, with the Rachmaninoff Isle of the Dead and the Sibelius Second Symphony. The Venice Baroque Orchestra with conductor/harpsichordist Andrea Marcon and soprano Karina Gauvin perform an all Vivaldi program. Myung-Whun Chung leads the Sächsische Staatskapelle in Beethoven’s Second and Mahler’s Fourth symphonies. Finally, Christoph Eschenbach’s Bamberg Symphony will feature percussionist Martin Grubinger in Avner Dorman’s Frozen in Time, with Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Ravel’s La Valse.

Chamber Music, Small Ensemble, Dance, and Solo Artists

Hélène Grimaud joins frequent collaborator Jan Vogler in works for piano and cello by Debussy, Brahms, Schumann, and Shostakovich. Pianist Boris Giltburg plays Grieg and Granados. The Dover Quartet airs Saariaho and Grieg with Mozart. The Danish String Quartet, with clarinetist David Orlowsky, performs Nielsen, Golijov and Danish folk music. The Quatuor Ebène performs Dutilleux, Haydn and Beethoven. The Auryn Quartet performs quartets by Arriaga, Ravel, and Sibelius. The Cappella Sagittariana ensemble essays early Baroque pieces. The Finnish pianist Olli Mustonen performs his own Sonata for Piano and works of Tchaikovsky, Chopin and Prokofiev.

Kent Nagano and his Ensemble Modern take on Bernstein’s A Quiet Place. Dresdner Kreuzchor sings classical and contemporary vocal works. The Vocal Concert Dresden sings works for children of all ages. The ensemble Al Ayre Español, with soprano Raquel Andueza, essays works by Handel, de Torres, Corelli, Cabanilles, Zamboni and Domenico Scarlatti. The Dvorák Trio and soprano Olga Peretyatko give a song recital of Rachmaninoff, Rimsky-Korsakov, Rossini and Strauss. Accordionist Martynas and the Sinchronic Quartet perform works ranging from Vivaldi, Bach and Mozart to those of Piazzolla and Lady Gaga.

Sweden’s Göteborgs-Operans Danskompani does a contemporary dance piece. The Trio Cayao will fling fiery tangos. Musicologist, philosopher, and mathematician professor Martin Rohrmeier will explore in sight and sound what musical creativity is all about. Mandolinist Avi Avital provides a new sonic experience for works by Villa-Lobos, Bartók, Tsintsadze, and Piazzolla. A children’s concert features trolls and fairies. The Pekka Kuusisto Project presents young Finnish musicians and dancers. Pianist Peter Rösel does Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert. Finally, Fado singer Mariza ends the festival with a Mediterranean flair, making her special brand of Afro-influenced music at home in distant Dresden.

The Dresden’s Music Festival’s “Fire and Ice” theme of 2015 advances a strong argument for the city as a welcoming musical bridge between the evocative melancholy of the north and the expressive extroversion of the south.

Hope to see you there.


A complete listing of festival events, with ticket information, is on the Dresdner Musikfestspiele website. Information is available in English and German.