Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Marianne Cornetti Swings for the Fences


Civic Theatre, San Diego

Award winning mezzo-soprano Marianne Cornetti hails from the USA, but as an artist she is thoroughly international. Having appeared in major opera houses from the Met to Vienna to Rome to Brussels and more, she is one of the busiest mezzos in the world and has even sung the National Anthem at a Pirates-Braves game at PNC Park in her native Pittsburgh.

Last seen in San Diego performing at the Opera’s 50th Anniversary Celebration Concert in April, 2015, Cornetti will appear as Mistress Quickly in SDO’s Verdian swan song, Falstaff, starting on Feb. 18, 2017. A great storyteller, Cornetti weighs in on her operatic journey.

EM: Welcome to San Diego Opera, Marianne! We’re so thrilled to have you back.

MC: I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to be back. It’s one of my most favorite theatres in the entire world.

EM: That’s so good to hear. You’ve sung in an immense number of major opera houses throughout the world. What was your journey to the opera stage?

MC: I grew up in Cabot, a little town north of Pittsburgh, in an Irish-Italian family. My mother had the musical end of things. My great-grandmother was a singer, my great-great-grandmother also sang. My grandmother played piano - she rocked at it. Nobody was ever trained, they all played by ear. My mother played piano, organ in churches. She wanted to share her love of music with my brothers and I. She said when I was 4 she was so happy because I could sing all the words to “Supercalifragilistic.” Little did we think I’d become an opera singer. It was just the love of music. When I was 12 the chorus teacher asked if I would like to sing a solo. I sang, “I’d like to teach the world to sing.” My family all said, “Oh my gosh, Marianne has such a loud voice.” That same teacher told the 7th grade teacher, “You’ve got to watch out for this one, there’s something there.” I auditioned for the chorus, got into it and started singing solos and started with private voice lessons when I was 14. Throughout high school and those years of being in chorus, I sang with the State and regionals and high school musicals. I had a lot of experience leading up to my first year of college at Manhattan School of Music but lasted just 6 months.

EM: What happened?

MC: It wasn’t the right fit for me, going from a teeny town in Pennsylvania to 125th Street and Broadway. So I transferred to Cincinnati Conservatory and loved it. It was the perfect atmosphere, wonderful classes, teachers. But I developed a terrible thyroid problem and had to go home for a year for treatment. My voice broke and I lost a lot of my confidence. A year later I almost returned but at the last moment decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do. My mother said, “It’s all right if you don’t want to get into music, but your education is absolutely vital. You have to figure out what you want to do.” I had no idea. All I knew was music.

EM: What got you through that crisis?

MC: Later I took an aptitude test to show my strengths and weaknesses. The first thing on the list was music, then Human Services. I put those together and thought of speech pathology. I transferred to Penn State and was miserable. Algebra and such was torture for me. I was singing but not studying. Duquesne University in Pittsburgh was closer to home and had a fine reputation for speech pathology. I transferred there. I had to make a choice, music or speech. Here, I truly believe that God’s hand was my guide. I had a wonderful singing teacher whose entire life was being a singer. I told her I was confused. Now that I was singing again the bug had bit me bit I didn’t think I could eat, sleep and drink music, like Maria Callas with an entourage and furs dragging. I loved sports and other things. I didn’t have the right personality to commit to an opera career. My teacher grabbed me by the shoulders - it was an absolute “Y” of my life, a moment of going this way or the other - and said, “Marianne Cornetti, if you don’t sing it will haunt you the rest of your life. This is what you were born to do.” From that moment I never looked back. I finished my music degree and off I went. I never doubted it. I just kept working on. And everything just started opening up.

Photo: Bill Cooper
EM: It’s amazing what a difference one person can make in your life. When you’re doing what you’re meant to do, everything falls into place.

MC: Oh my gosh, it’s been a phenomenal ride. You look at the difficulties and wonder. But when you love to do something it’s part of you and you just continue doing it. I feel very fortunate and privileged to have found my life’s work. So many people don’t.

EM: The opera world is fortunate to have you.

MC: Thank you.

EM: When it comes to roles and composers, you’ve sung Verdi to Puccini to Cilea. What are some of your most favorites roles?

MC: It’s whatever I’m doing at the time. I’ve been able to sing the greatest roles for not only the mezzo-soprano but some of the dramatic soprano roles. Azucena and Eboli, Amneris, Ulrica, Tigrana in Edgar, Abigaille in Nabucco, Lady Macbeth. I’m doing Le Prophète in Essen - this protagonist is the person who guides all the drama. I get to do these kinds of roles that without this particular character - all of them drive the drama. They’re truly the most interesting characters. It’s not being egotistical. Take Azucena out of Trovatore - what do you have? 

EM: True. Verdi originally wanted to name the opera after her. She really is the pivotal character. Some of those roles are the meat of the opera. Watching from the Met pit, I often wondered what it must be like to sing them. You’re confirming for me how awesome it must be. 

National Center for the Performing Arts, Beijing
MC: It is. Ulrica Un Ballo in Maschera - without her the story stops. It’s so interesting. These roles are not just driven by the drama, it’s also their complexity. They’re not one-layer kinds of roles. Look at Azucena, Amneris, Eboli - all those roles require a lot of thinking and building. From a vocal standpoint - wow. They’re really tough. Verdi pushes every role he writes to the absolute limit, bottom and top. In all of them there are great, constant challenges. I love that. I haven’t counted how many - Amneris, over 300, Azucena over 200. People ask me, “Don’t you get bored?” I say, “Oh, no. You have a new cast, new conductor, new director, new orchestra. I learn something every time - from a conductor or director - that I can put into the next show. When you go about it like that it becomes so challenging, so interesting. 

EM: Given your overall emphasis on Italian repertoire thus far, how do you feel about singing Wagner? 

MC: I adore Wagner. In a lot of ways, Wagner writes for my voice almost with perfection - dramatically, also in range. It sits just a tad lower than a dramatic soprano but a tad higher than a regular mezzo. I have that extension at the top of my voice. So Wagner stays in the range of a real mezzo but with the tops he needs for Ortrud, and it’s worked for me. Brangäne from Tristan and Isolde - she’s a bit too namby-pamby for me, but what I would love to do before I end my career is Isolde. Also a Fricka, a Kundry, these kinds of roles. Many people ask me, “Have you touched on all the roles?” I say, “Oh my God, no.” 

EM: Your concert and recital repertoire is also quite extensive. Do you have a preference for singing opera, performing in concert, or both? 

MC: In a nutshell, when I’m singing I’m the happiest. Whether it’s in concert or a staged performance I’m doing what I love to do. But if I had to say, I enjoy opera more, being on stage in costume and production. Although I’m really looking forward to doing Beethoven’s 9th with the Akron Symphony, even though it’s a total of about 3 minutes of me singing. To get to do such a magnificent piece - it’s just not always about what I’m doing on stage, it’s also about what other people are doing. I do love solo recitals, but they’re few and far between anymore, though the Marilyn Horne Foundation has been beating the bushes trying to keep the song recital going. But it’s hard, it’s a dying art. Opera is bigger than life - the production, the singing, chorus, action. It’s a phenomenon, magnificent. 

EM: Your passion for and commitment to fostering young and upcoming opera singers is inspiring. You’ve hosted a Master Class at the 2015 iSING! Suzhou International Young Artists Festival in China. Is that passion because of your own background? 

MC: It’s a lot of things. I love young singers. I’ve been given a gift and an opportunity, from someone who left, to get on the stage. To keep all of that nearly 30-year career just to myself means absolutely nothing. But if I take a young singer - so many of them are so hungry, wanting to find new information outside of themselves - I’m so happy to give of myself. In master classes I always start out by saying, “Please open your minds for these two or three hours, and allow the information to come in, allow me to try things with you. I would never do something that isn’t going to be right for you, but it’s my experience over the years that I’m trying to pass on to you. At the end of the class you are free to take it or leave what you don't want. ” Kids respond. A lot. 

EM: In what ways? 

MC: I’m very tactile. I want to hug kids when they come up and when they leave, because I believe when you stand in front of an audience of people and are asked to go out of your realm of comfort, you’re very vulnerable. A lot of people get nervous and can’t do it. This happened to me as a young artist. I was in a master class given by a former colleague considered one of the great singers, who told one young girl with a lovely voice that she should do something else. I thought, there’s no way I would ever do anything like that. I’m not God. I’m not going to say who’s going to make it or not. I’m just supposed to give information. But in order to do it you have to make people feel comfortable. It’s in my nature to nurture, but in a professional manner. I love to see young singers get the opportunity and just go. When I was in China those kids were “white on rice.” 

EM: “White on rice?” I’ve never heard that expression. 

MC: [Laughs] Yes, because they could not get enough information and wouldn’t leave me alone. When we took a pause they would be, “Can you show me, can you tell me, how would you do this.” It’s all relatively new to them. Talk about working hard, they’re unbelievable. It’s wonderful to see that. 

EM: It must have felt amazing when The Opera Theatre of Pittsburgh created the Marianne Cornetti Young Artist Scholarship in your name. 

MC: Believe it or not I have several scholarships out there. It’s a humongous honor. In my name, someone is awarded monetarily and I work with them throughout the SummerFest. It’s wonderful. I have another scholarship at Slippery Rock University north of Pittsburgh, through their music program. They have endowed nearly $35,000 towards it. It’s been going on almost 20 years now. 

EM: Continuing that legacy is a way of showing your gratitude for the people who changed and made all the difference in your life. 

MC: It’s in the last 4 or 5 years that I’ve stopped to think, “My gosh, I’ve just done so much in the last 25 years. How did I get here?” I started to realize it’s my teachers, the ones who were influential from first grade, that were such a huge influence in my life. I needed and wanted to do something, to go back to find each teacher I had, all the way through high school, and thank them. At a concert I gave the year before last here in Pittsburgh, I found out six of my teachers were in the audience, the teachers who had been so amazingly important in my life. I stopped near the end and told them all to stand up. I thanked each one of them for what they had given me in nurturing and teaching, that a teacher affects us for eternity - what you taught me, I’m going to teach somebody else. It just keeps going on. 

EM: It’s unique that someone gives a teacher that recognition, which they so need, for making that difference. 

MC: Absolutely. You cannot believe their reaction. There weren’t many dry eyes in that concert. The teachers afterward were [Gasps] without words. 

EM: And then there’s - football. 

MC: [Laughs.] 

EM: Football and opera have become quite the thing. I’ve been reading some of your Facebook posts about your appearances with the Pittsburgh Steelers. You’ve become a “local hero” for them, most recently performing for the New Year’s Day game. 

MC: I know, it’s so funny. It’s a big deal here in Pittsburgh. With the Pirates - it’s a wonderful, heartwarming story. A couple of years I was on Facebook, rooting for one of the Pittsburgh teams, and a guy who friended me, Michael Duffy, said, “Have you ever sung at the Pirates, Penguins or Steelers games?” I said, “No, they want an audition and at this stage I shouldn’t have to.” He agreed. Later he wrote, “Do you mind if I call the Pirates, maybe they’re just not aware of you. I’m a big fan of yours and they should recognize who you are.” I thought it couldn’t hurt. He called me back and said they were so excited to talk to me. I thought he was kidding. But I called the Pirates and the girl in charge of bringing in the Anthem singers, a former pianist at Northwestern, apologized for being unaware of me and said, “We would love to have you sing the Anthem.” So I sang and they went crazy. Now I sing one of the Anthems every year. 

EM: And the Steelers? 

MC: Michael, glad it all worked out, asked if I wanted him to call the Steelers. I asked him why he wanted to do it, since he didn’t really know me. We grew up in the same area, he said. As it happened, my dad ran a big mushroom farm where everybody in our little community worked, including my brothers and I outside of school. Michael said, “Long ago I worked at your dad’s farm. He was my boss. The kindest man. He always shook my hand, always said hello, always had a smile. I always wanted to do something for Mr. Cornetti. Now I had my opportunity.” Can you imagine? He called the Steelers and told me they were on board. I went down and sang the Anthem for the game, no audition. They loved it. Everybody went crazy - they all thought the way I sang was so personal, and so devoted the way I looked at the flag. I do truly believe in what I’m singing about. They wanted me to sing Auld Lang Syne for the New Years’ Day game during a video of the Steelers during the past year. I thought that was awesome, but I didn’t want to do it a capella for 72,000 people. They arranged for me to work with two instrumentalists, an acoustic guitarist and one on keyboard, in a recording studio - in Ohio. That was a new experience. I suggested an intro on electric guitar, just rip it, to grab the audience, and he did. We put the whole thing together in 4 hours. On the day of the game I had the track in my ears and sang live. It was SO AWESOME. So cool to stand up there and do something with such an important organization. The Steelers, the Rooney family, treated me as though I was a queen, honestly. Plus they gave me a jersey with my name and let me wear the 43rd Super Bowl ring [Gasps].

EM: You seem to be almost as fascinated with sports as with opera. 

MC: Growing up with just brothers, there weren’t many girls in the neighborhood so I had to play with boys. Of course they think you don’t know how to do anything. Our yard had the baseball diamond. All the kids came to our house. I cried to my mom that they wouldn't let me play. She said, “Marianne, you have to make them let you play. Figure it out.” I thought it was unfair. Then I got up and walked between the catcher and pitcher and lay down. They knew if they hit me with that ball they’d be dead meat. So they gave me a glove and put me in the outfield. Balls were going over my head. But they had to teach me how to play. I became a great second baseman. Then I learned to play football and they came knocking at my door asking me to be their quarterback. So I grew up a real tomboy and still have a passion for all those sports. My mother had the wherewithal to put into my mind that it had to be me to get them to allow me to play. That tenacity, I’ve carried all my life. In this career you have to keep going, striving, not give up. You’re going to get there eventually. 

EM: Clearly sports and opera go very well together. Just ask Jake Heggie. 

MC: They’ve both been a big deal with me. In 2013 when I was in Japan and the Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team were in the playoffs, in spite of 13 hours’ time difference I would get up early in the morning and listen over the Internet at the local Starbucks. When I became hysterical those quiet Japanese would watch me stand up and cheer. I’m sure they wondered what was wrong with me. [Laughs]. But it’s my passion. 

EM: Marianne, this has been extraordinary. You have so much to say. I can imagine it coming through as you sing Mistress Quickly in SDO’s Falstaff.

 MC: And there it is again. Without Quickly, it doesn’t happen, you know? 

EM: Along with Sir John she is the most fun character of all. I can’t wait. 

MC: It should be a lot of fun. 

EM: Thank you so much for spending time with me. 

MC: Erica, it’s been a real pleasure. 

SDO’s Falstaff runs from Feb. 18-26 at the San Diego Civic Theatre.


Photo credits: National Center for the Performing Arts Beijing, Bill Cooper, courtesy of the artist

Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, January 27, 2017

Josephin Mosch Joins LA Opus as European Contributor

Photo: Josephin Mosch

LA Opus Publisher

Dear Readers:

It is with great pleasure that we introduce to you the youngest contributor to LA Opus, Josephin Mosch, whose varied professional activities are shared between three major areas of interest: medicine, music and media.

We became acquainted with Josephin when last year LA Opus reviewed the Heidelberg Spring Festival in Germany, where she had a role in the support of its artists and concerts. Josephin has been active musically as a violinist in orchestras like the Collegium Musicum in Heidelberg and the Orchestre des Universités de Paris, and sung in choral ensembles like the Harvard University Choir. Currently pursuing a degree in medicine, she has reported on music and science for journals and on radio, and is currently working for the Bavarian broadcasting company (a part of the German TV and Radio --ARD).

Now in her final year of medical studies at Heidelberg University's Medical School, Josephin had earlier pursued studies in Paris at the Université Paris Diderot, and is doing doctoral thesis work in cardiovascular research at the Harvard Medical School's Brigham and Women’s Hospital. She was recently awarded support by the Global Health Journalism Grant Program of the European Journalism Centre and will soon report about progress on the eradication of measles in various countries as well as new achievements in medicine and science.

The mention of journalism takes us to Josephin's main area of interest to our readers. From her current European perspective, she will contribute music reviews and commentary on activities in her native Germany as well as nearby countries for LA Opus.

The connection between music and the medical professions has much historical precedent. Russian composer Alexander Borodin was by day a chemist at the city of St. Petersburg's Medical–Surgical Academy, where he also founded the School of Medicine for Women. And by evening he was the composer of some of the loveliest melodies of the Romantic era. Another, less successful story, was that of Hector Berlioz, whose brief tenure as a medical student had him fleeing in horror from the live dissection of a cadaver, as he so theatrically related in his memoirs.

Our local readers may know of the Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra, one of the oldest community orchestras in the United States. Its ranks include doctors, dentists, veterinarians, nurses, and allied health care professionals. No doubt they will be interested in the intersections Josephin uncovers between the fields of music and medicine.

Josephin's two earlier articles on LA Opus can be accessed by clicking her name at the scroll of authors on the upper right side of the blog. We are delighted to welcome Josephin Mosch to the roster of LA Opus contributors.

Thursday, January 26, 2017

The Hernandez/Giacopuzzi Duo in concert


Juan-Miguel Hernandez and Jacopo Giacopuzzi play Rachmaninoff, Enescu, Schumann, Coletti, Liszt, and Franck

Juan-Miguel Hernandez
The January “The Interludes” recital at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, was given by the Hernandez/Giacopuzzi Duo, comprising the violist Juan-Miguel Hernandez and the pianist Jacopo Giacopuzzi. For the piano-solo opener the program listed just “Prelude” by Rachmaninoff, but fortunately Mr. Giacopuzzi identified what he was about to play as Op. 23 No. 4 in D, a particularly limpid member of that set, and setting an overall romantic mood for the recital.

For me, the principal attraction of the program was the inclusion of a work by Georges Enescu, one of the most grievously neglected “one-work” masters of the 20th century (i.e. if you heard his Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 you would almost certainly find it familiar; if you listened to anything else by him you almost certainly wouldn’t). Here we had his 1906 Concertstück for viola and piano which, while not major Enescu (try his visionary Third Symphony or the mighty opera Oedipe), still cast a haunting spell, perfectly conceived for the husky yet eloquent tones of the viola, and wonderfully projected at this recital by Mr. Hernandez.

Jacopo Giacopuzzi
What with the Thies Consort’s cracking performance of the Piano Quintet Op. 44, and Steven Vanhauwaert’s inclusion of two Novelletten in his more recent recital (both concerts previously reviewed here), we’ve been doing well on the Palos Verdes Peninsula for live Schumann lately, and the Hernandez/Giacopuzzi Duo followed up with the Adagio and Allegro Op. 70, originally for horn and piano but clearly suited just as well to the viola. The nostalgically romantic Adagio fitted in almost too well with the general tenor of the program so far. It shares the same territory as the slow movement of Schumann’s Symphony No. 2, but unlike that full-scale orchestral Adagio espressivo, this movement is quite short: almost, but not quite, merely an extended introduction to the Allegro.

A completely unfamiliar name to me followed, that of Paul Coletti, who proved to be Mr. Hernandez’s viola professor at the Colburn School. Coletti's From my Heart memorializes his father, including some of his favorite popular tunes, and the Duo’s affectionate performance projected its smoochy night-club mood as well as was possible in a mid-afternoon church environment.

The violist then left the stage clear for Mr. Giacopuzzi to play the last two scheduled items – and we were back once again with Schumann and also Liszt, who had very much been the focus of Mr Vanhauwaert’s recital previously reviewed. First there was yet more elegiac romance in Liszt’s arrangement of Schumann’s Widmung (“Dedication”), the first of the 25 songs included in the collection Myrthen Op. 25, and then finally some really bravura stuff. Liszt made very many transcriptions and arrangements of other composers’ music, and among the most immediately engaging must be his scintillating enwrapping of the quartet from Act 3 of Verdi’s Rigoletto in his extended “Paraphrase”, which Mr. Giacopuzzi played for all its worth.

That was the official end of the program, but it came as no surprise when the other member of the Duo returned for an encore. The choice of item was somewhat unexpected, though – nothing less than the finale of Franck’s wonderful Violin Sonata in A major, which lost none of its serenity and eloquence in the transcription for the violin’s larger cousin. I wonder if the Hernandez/Giacopuzzi Duo ever perform the whole sonata?


 “The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, January 14.

Photo credits: Juan-Miguel Hernandez, Jacopo Giacopuzzi

If you found this review enjoyable, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

A Concert of Two Halves

Steven Vanhauwaert


Steven Vanhauwaert plays Liszt, Schumann, Busoni and more Liszt

You don’t normally expect a concert interval to last just over two days, but that was the effective outcome of the designedly complementary pair of recitals by pianist Steven Vanhauwaert that formed 2017’s kick-off to both the “First Fridays at First!” lunchtime series at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, and the Rolling Hills United Methodist Church’s early afternoon “Second Sundays at Two”.

Lucky we are indeed on the Palos Verdes Peninsula to regularly enjoy not only these but also the Chamber Music of the South Bay concerts (see previous review “A Trio of Piano Quintets at Rancho Palos Verdes”) and “The Interludes” on Saturday afternoons, mid-month, also at First Lutheran, Torrance (see following review). “First Fridays at First!” and “The Interludes” are promoted by Classical Crossroads, Inc., while “Second Sundays at Two” is sponsored by RHUMC itself.

Mr. Vanhauwaert’s concert “first half” was billed as “Liszt Favorites”, which proved to be six of the 12 Transcendental Etudes S139. His engaging and enthusiastic spoken introduction sketched the history of these, of which he played not the first numbered six but Nos. 1-3, 7, 9 and 11, a sequence that formed a coherent but varied whole. 

As he noted, the Transcendental Etudes are a second reworking of the Douze Etudes S136 written in 1826 when Liszt was only 15. The first reworking – not uninfluenced by the rapid evolution of piano design in the first decades of the 19th century – came in 1837 when he expanded these relatively simple pieces into the Douze Grandes Etudes S137, a set of phenomenal difficulty and almost three times the overall length of the original. Then a second and final revision 15 years further on produced the somewhat pianistically simplified but still formidably virtuosic final Transcendental Etudes, which of the three versions is by far the one most often played today. 

Though these still present multiple challenges to players, Mr. Vanhauwaert vaulted nimbly over them with technique to spare. He bounded out of the starting gate, delivering in a single sweep the brief impactful Preludio, which then segued virtually without a pause into No. 2 Molto vivace and then the much longer and more reflective No. 3 Paysage (“Landscape”). Indeed, by canny use of body language in addition to the subtle handling of pauses, he managed to make the whole sequence of six into a single and highly rewarding experience, unpunctuated by superfluous applause. 

After the sunset close of Paysage, the opening of No. 7 Eroica was a peremptory call to attention, soon slowing to a funeral march, while No. 9 Ricordanza proved to be a sentimental “Remembrance” indeed (a reminder also that Liszt has sometimes been criticized for tastelessness, notably by Clara Schumann). After this Mr. Vanhauwaert once more segued almost without a pause into the final Harmonies du Soir, at first serene and objective by contrast to the preceding movement, then with a growing grandeur that threatened to tip over into grandiosity but was saved from doing so by the conviction and aplomb with which the pianist handled its torrent of notes. I for one was won over – this was transcendental indeed, and the audience rewarded this recital “first half” with a standing ovation that for once was deserved. 


So… two days later, on to the “second half” in the larger and more acoustically responsive space of RHUMC. Mr. Vanhauwaert began with two of Schumann’s eight Novelletten Op. 21 – in fact, the first and last of them. As with Schubert’s Impromptus, Schumann’s overall title masks works of considerable length and variety, very much not the musical epigrams one might expect. However, for this listener (and not as with Schubert’s Impromptus) they seemed a bit over-extended for their basic material, and particularly in No. 8 I found my mind wandering and wondering about the next pieces. 

These were two of the four that comprise Busoni’s Indianisches Tagebuch. I had heard of this work but knew nothing about it, and in my ignorance assumed the “Indian” of the title to refer to the music of the Asian sub-continent. Not so! The beguiling melodies that Busoni transcribed as the basis for the two middle movements of the four – “Song of Victory” and “Bluebird Song” – were from, respectively, the North American Cheyenne and Pima people. Both were a delight, the first an impetuous, skittish piece over a driven six-note ground bass, the second much slower, with many transitory and sensuous bitonal clashes and a continual feel of something adjacent to the “Scottish snap”. 

I would happily have heard the remaining first and last movements of the Busoni as well, but space was needed for the conclusion to the recital, the towering Dante Sonata or, to give its full title, Après une Lecture de Dante: Fantasia quasi Sonata, the final movement from Book Two, Italie, of Liszt’s Années de pèlerinage (“Years of pilgrimage”). Mr. Vanhauwaert in another spoken introduction drew attention to the use in this piece of the dissonant tritone, sometimes called “the devil in music”, and to my ears gave special emphasis to it in the work’s dramatic opening, said to represent the torments of the damned in Hell. Throughout his account of one of Liszt’s most powerful and arresting piano works, he never let up the tension across its 15+ minutes, strung between alternations of the demonic opening theme and the beatific, chorale-like second subject depicting the saved souls in Heaven. It was the perfect coping-stone to a magnificent recital. 


“First Fridays at First!”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, January 6
“Second Sundays at Two”: Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, 2.00pm, Sunday, January 8

Photo credit: Steven Vanhauwaert

If you found this review enjoyable, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Friday, January 13, 2017

Orion Weiss plays Brahms, COSB does Bartók and Kódaly

Orion Weiss

Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay
Norris Theatre, Palos Verdes Performing Arts

Any program-builder intent on including either of the Brahms piano concertos in a concert faces a somewhat different challenge from that posed by almost all other concertos. Basically, both are so huge that the fallback formula of overture/concerto, with a symphony following the interval, or variants thereon, would result in either an unacceptably long total program or a second half most likely to seem trivial or anticlimactic after the mighty first half.

Unsurprisingly therefore, Frances Steiner, Music Director of the Chamber Orchestra of the South Bay,  made Brahms’ Piano Concerto No. 1 in D minor the sole item in the latter part of the orchestra’s first concert of 2017 last Sunday evening in Palos Verdes, and she met the challenge of the necessarily brief first half in a pretty interesting way. She solved it – perhaps with Brahms’ affection for Hungarian dances in the back of her mind – by juxtaposing responses to their native folk music by two of the 20th century’s greatest Hungarian composers, Béla Bartók and Zoltán Kódaly.

Both were assiduous field researchers and collectors of old Magyar folk melodies, and in many of their concert works were influenced by and sometimes incorporated folk elements. The two examples played at this concert, however, were starkly contrasted in style and content. Bartók’s six Romanian Folk Dances take just about that many minutes to perform, such plain and unvarnished transcriptions are they, even in the version for a small orchestra of winds and strings that he made two years after the original 1915 set for piano. 

On the other hand, Kódaly’s 1933 Dances of Galánta, for a larger but still relatively modest orchestra, amount almost to a romantic tone poem, with the five sections integrated into a single continuous whole, much richer harmonies, and orchestral color heightened by some judicious percussion. Neither treatment of the folk sources can be described as “right” or “wrong”, but the bare-bones effect of the Bartók was accentuated by tempi choices that seemed to me a little slow (at least until the final “Fast Dance”) and was further emphasized, not in a good way, by the excessively dry acoustic of the Norris Theatre. The Kódaly, on the other hand, went with a will, with the orchestra by now settled in and delivering plenty of impact under Ms Steiner’s direction.

Back when I first began to get an idea of what goes on “under the hood” of orchestral performance, one of my biggest surprises was to find that Brahms achieves the seismic roar and epic flourishes that open his first piano concerto not with some vast instrumental array (think Mahler) but by an orchestra barely larger, by a single pair of horns, than Haydn used in his last symphonies. So with this in mind it was not necessarily inappropriate – though still somewhat surprising – to find a chamber orchestra accompanying Orion Weiss in a performance of this grandest of concertos (at least in the standard repertoire). The crucial thing, though, is how Brahms scores this opening, with a blast from all four horns in octaves over a rumble of double basses, violas and timpani, and the drama then unfolding in grand strides by most of the remainder of the orchestra above that firm fortissimo foundation. CD owners are used to the sound of the world’s great symphony orchestras in this music, with eight or even more double basses providing bedrock underpinning to the other strings in proportion above; how would the far smaller numbers of the COSB fare?

The two best double basses in the world could not match what, say, the LAPO could muster, but the pair of COSB players did their best, and it was notable that the accompanying timpani roll, which could so easily have drowned out everybody else, was scaled back to maintain overall orchestral balance. Given also the auditorium’s unforgiving acoustic, it was as good as one could reasonably expect, and once Mr Weiss joined the proceedings with the piano’s first entry, so seemingly tentative yet so pregnant with foreboding, the success of the performance was assured. 

I have enjoyed many concerts by this pianist at the annual summer Festivals of Music at Bard College in upper New York State, but there he was almost always either playing solo, or with a chamber group or his wife (the equally talented Anna Polonsky), and most often in rare repertoire. This was my first experience of Weiss in one of the major challenges of the core concerto repertoire, and it was as much a joy as hearing him elucidate, say, a set of Bartók Bagatelles or Atterberg’s chamber arrangement of his Sixth Symphony (to mention just two past pleasures). His playing on this occasion was variously powerful, crisply articulated and sensitive as Brahms requires. I for one hope to see Weiss back in this part of this side of the continent, and soon.

As is customary with the COSB concerts, this one was preceded by a preview talk from Stephen Richards, illustrated with recorded examples from all three works, for which it was well worth making a point of arriving in time. 


Sunday, January 8, 2017, 8 p.m.; pre-concert talk 7.15 p.m.
Photo credit: Orion Weiss

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