Wednesday, September 27, 2017

Dvořák and Sibelius at the Segerstrom


Joshua Bell, Pacific Symphony, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

Joshua Bell.
Though this concert – an item extra to the Pacific Symphony’s 2017-18 classical season and generously sponsored by Yasuko and Seth Siegel – was billed as “An Evening with Joshua Bell”, the soloist did not appear until after the interval, when he played the Sibelius Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47. The first half was occupied by the rather longer Symphony No.9 in D minor “From the New World” Op.95 B.178 of Antonín Dvořák, and while one may regret that the program didn’t take a chance and opt for something a bit further from the very center of the mainstream (and it surely wouldn’t have been much of a risk, given Mr. Bell’s audience pulling power), there was still much to relish in the performance. 

This was only my second experience of the Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall’s acoustic, so I’m still at the stage of being knocked out by its remarkable blend of spaciousness, clarity, and effortless-seeming truthfulness (doubtless achieved with a great deal of effort and expertise by the acousticians and architects!). There was something almost shocking in the sheer beauty of the sound of the lower strings’ pianissimo, as PSO Music Director Carl St. Clair gently coaxed their opening measures of the symphony’s first movement Adagio introduction.

Antonín Dvořák.
However, as he navigated the progressive entry of other instrumental groups in this “upbeat” to the main body of the movement, I did find the very slow pace and degree of expressive intensity a bit much. Dvořák’s metronome mark alongside that Adagio instruction is sixteenth note=126, and neither changes throughout the 23 measures before the main Allegro molto kicks in. This is way faster than any performance I have come across, and while in no way would metronomic rigidity be desirable, it would be interesting to hear an approach to that speed, so that the slow(ish) intro feels actually like a lead-in to the main movement and not a separate piece in itself.

It was not a surprise that Mr. St. Clair omitted the first movement exposition repeat, as is the case more often than not with this symphony. I realize that this review is beginning to sound a bit of a nitpick, but… a master in his maturity such as Dvořák was when he wrote the "New World" surely knew what he wanted, particularly as he took the trouble to write four lead-back measures to this particular repeat; and first-movement repeats clearly were not automatic for him, given that he does not ask for one in either of his preceding symphonies.

Enough! Beauty abounded throughout the performance, from the gorgeous flute that introduced the transition to the first movement’s second subject (neither slowed unwontedly), to the easeful legato of the English horn “Going Home” in that solo in the Largo second movement (but with its limpid purity not descending into any hint of droopiness), to the dramatic driving fury of the end of the finale. And I noticed detail as never before – the brief tremolo on the double-basses toward the end of the Largo’s central section, and for once the triangle in the Scherzo sounding “right” and not like an unanswered telephone offstage. Hearing the "New World" afresh in such a performance also made one note how angry and even tragic much of it sounds, despite its manifold ear-catching tunefulness.

Delaying Mr. Bell’s presence until the second half of this “Evening with” gave his eventual appearance an almost rock-star degree of deferred gratification for the audience, amped-up by Mr. St. Clair’s microphoned invitation just before his entry to “enjoy the artistry of Joshua Bell!” And unquestionably there was a great deal to enjoy.

  Jean Sibelius, sketched by Albert Engström
in 1904, when the Violin Concerto was written.
It’s a truism to say that Sibelius’s Violin Concerto is one of the great masterpieces of the genre, but it had a difficult genesis, due not only to problems over the original dedicatee’s availability, as noted in the program book, but also to Sibelius’s battle with alcoholism. After the premiere he withdrew and extensively revised it (I wonder whether Mr. Bell has ever played, or considered playing, the even more excruciatingly difficult original version?), and even then it was decades before it broke through from Finnish provinciality to a solid place in the repertory, following Jascha Heifetz’s 1935 recording.

This work almost miraculously “has it both ways”, in that its overall structure of a large and complex first movement followed by much shorter and simpler slow movement and finale is firmly in the pattern of the great violin concertos of the past, pre-eminently the Beethoven and the Brahms, but also in that its sound-world is entirely of Sibelius’s highly original maturity. The very opening, a pianissimo haze of muted tremolos on divided first and second violins, out of which emerges the long and unmistakably Sibelian first theme on the solo violin, is unlike any other. Mr. Bell floated the melody (much more quietly than the marked mezzo-forte, but with all the dolce ed espressivo that the composer also asks for) on a thread of tone, expansive, and as flexible as a living thing. 

As the first movement progressed, once again the extraordinary acoustic of the Segerstrom Hall revealed details I had never consciously been aware of before, like the violin’s brief duet with a solo viola about five minutes in, and later the bassoons’ entry after the cadenza. Indeed, throughout the work the acoustic, quite as much as it clothed Mr. Bell’s sinuous, expressive line, pointed up the sheer originality of Sibelius’s orchestration – its spareness, rawness, almost primeval quality – all the more remarkable as it is achieved with absolutely standard orchestral forces.

The opening of the Adagio di molto slow movement is as original as, but completely different from, that of the first movement, though those musings in thirds by the pairs of clarinets and oboes lead to a melodic line on the solo violin as expansive and memorable as its counterpart in the first movement. Here I did miss a certain warmth in Mr. Bell’s playing, though his control of pitch and intonation were as total as elsewhere. 

Carl St. Clair.
This technical mastery, which seemed simply to melt away the concerto’s difficulties, enabled his performance to be variously mercurial, tender, ferocious, and with an improvisatory quality that must have been a challenge for conductor and orchestra to follow. Indeed, there were places, particularly in the fast and often insistently rhythmic rondo finale which is full of spots that require exact coordination between soloist and other instruments, where I felt that one more rehearsal to tidy up some shaky moments wouldn’t have come amiss. Nonetheless, everyone was right “there” at the movement’s climax – seismic, or sea-swelling: either metaphor will do – and few capacity audiences can have been so fast onto their feet cheering. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Saturday, September 23, 2017, 8 p.m.
Photos: Joshua Bell: Lisa Marie Mazzucco; Carl St Clair; Antonín Dvořák; Jean Sibelius.

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Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Magic Flute, Silently into that Dark Night at Philadelphia

Ben Bliss as Tamino in Magic Flute


Magic Flute at Opera Philadelphia

Opera Philadelphia’s just concluded fall season, Festival O17, mounted only one of its five operas at the venerable Academy of Music, but it was a doozy. Mozart’s Magic Flute, in the now iconic 2012 production from Berlin's Komische Oper, enjoyed its twentieth whistle stop on a worldwide tour that shows no signs of slowing down.

Reimagined as a silent movie by a brilliant team that includes "1927", a company specializing in silent-era conventions, this version of Mozart's and Emanuel Schikaneder’s singspiel has its live singing and action aligned with quirky faux-film techniques. Jointly staged by Barrie Kosky and Suzanne Andrade, with witty projections on a continuous full-stage scrim by Paul Barritt, its imagery unfolds in the frenetic action of a comedic dreamscape. Characters on stage are an amalgam of weird, fantasy bodies (human and other) projected on the scrim, with the heads and torsos of the live singers popping out of it (see photo above).

The Queen's Three Ladies

The singspiel is a particularly Austro-German stage work with parallels to the American musical, where singing and spoken dialogue intersperse. They are typically performed for modern audiences with musical numbers sung in the original German and the spoken dialogue in the language of the country where the work is presented. But as innovation here, Kosky and company project on the scrim short exclamations ("intertitles" in silent movie lingo) in lieu of the customary dialogue. The efficient sign-boarding keeps the action flowing between numbers and tells the audience all the essentials of the plot.

In the pit, an 18th century fortepiano accompanies the intertitles with excerpts from two of Mozart’s piano fantasies,  K475 in C-minor and K397 in D-minor. The interpolations add stylistically consistent musical continuity to the existing score, while sounding like silent-movie keyboard tropes, lending charm and authenticity to the production's Roaring Twenties conceit.

Magic Flute, like Mozart's earlier Abduction from the Seraglio, is a rescue story within a love story, actually a few pairs of them, where separations and usurpations intensify the adventure. Moralizing commentary by three childlike "spirits" adds to the charm. But Mozart's last and most popular stage work is, despite its folk-like character, also a parable of character development.

Trials and tests determine who gains his or her worthy partner, as they also reveal who is unworthy of a partner. It's a parable that confirmed for the 18th century an ideal social order where aristocrats (or those who aspire to their courtly behavior) come out on top, weaker-charactered servants muddle through, and out-and-out troublemakers get their comeuppance. The score is filled with Masonic symbolism, mostly ignored here, with none of it all that important for today's audiences.

Ben Bliss’s suave tenor was the black-tuxedoed, slick-haired, matinee-idol Tamino who, though stressed, projected an appropriate seriousness of purpose. The first challenge for Tamino is to determine who is telling him the truth. Initially “rescued” from a serpent by the Queen of the Night’s three ladies, and soon smitten with the portrait of Pamina (a radiant Rachel Sterrenberg), Tamino initially believes he’s on a mission to rescue her from the evil Sarastro. Yet he soon learns he journeys not to, but from an enemy, and not from, but to a friend. The many trials Tamino and Pamina must endure lead them to further character growth and prepare them for their journeys in life.

Tamino (Bliss) meets the Queen of the Night (Olga Pudova)

The audience knows that Olga Pudova’s Queen of the Night is up to no good from the get-go. Projected full-screen around her live head is the leggy animated body of a black-widow spider. Pudova’s rendition of the famous vengeance aria was impressive; her spot-on intonation and stratospheric bell-like tones making it the most effortless Queen's wrath I have ever heard.

Bass Peixin Chen’s Sarastro, his deep vocalizations warm, serene, and reassuring, was often encountered in animation as a diagramed brain of turning machine gears, symbolic of his role as caretaker for the 18th century Enlightenment's optimistic rationalism. In his brain is found true Kunst (art) and science.

Tamino (Bliss) meets Sarastro (Peixin Chen)

The vigorous Brenton Ryan's Monostatos, Tamino's rival, looked like a love-sick but nasty Nosferatu, menacing his thirst for the Pamina who is always just out of his desperate grasp. This production, to its credit, manages to make one believe she is always about to be in that grasp.

Monostatos (Brenton Ryan) with intertitle dialogue
Tamino’s easy-going side-kick, Papageno (pliant baritone Jarrett Ott), was dressed in the brown-suit and flat-hat of a Buster Keaton. If he failed every test of courage and self-discipline, he was, with his redeeming good heart, forgiven, especially for first finding and then bringing Pamina to Tamino. The later encounter of Papagena (an energetic Ashley Robillard) with her desperate-to-wed Papageno made up for its brevity with the boundless good cheer of their bird-song duet.

The slightly muted pit orchestra was elegantly propelled throughout the evening by conductor David Charles Abell. While the Academy of Music's dowdy chamber does not possess a warm resonance for either orchestra in the pit or voices on stage, its size was perfect for this production's visual element, and its projection of voices carried well enough to count when needed.

Papageno (Ott) and Papagena (Robillard)
I had been disappointed four years ago with the initial run of this Magic Flute at the co-producing Los Angeles Opera. The staging seemed too 2-D flat, its projected colors washed-out, and its gags hard to hear; overall a clever gimmick that didn't quite jell.

When it worked so much better in Philadelphia, I guessed it had undergone, after that initial run, some kind of clever tinkering. But Komische Oper director Philip Bröking, by chance seated next to me at the September 15 performance, assured me it was the same production I had seen at L.A. four years ago.

L.A.’s Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, half-again larger than the Academy of Music (and that much more distant from the audience), may have had something to do with perceptions. Here in Philadelphia, a smooth interactive choreography blended singers and screen projections to maximum advantage. Color presence and depth were vivid, vocals vibrant, and gags both audible and witty. It was, to put it simply, a Magic Flute for the ages.

Lesson learned: If at first an opera production doesn't work for you, give it a try at another house.


Photos: Opera Philadelphia

Thursday, September 21, 2017

Bel canto and Scottish battlements at Forest Lawn


Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, Pacific Opera Project, Forest Lawn, Glendale

The assembled company in the closing stages of Lucia di Lammermoor at Forest Lawn.

LA’s premier necropolis seemed an unlikely venue for this late-summer outdoor production from Pacific Opera Project (POP), but the terrace on Forest Lawn’s summit, after a maybe-contemplative walk across the marble flagstones between the museum and the cathedral, turned out to be a near-ideal setting for Donizetti’s blood-boltered melodramatic tragedy. Even the terrace’s strategic orientation westward added to the effect, with the setting sun’s salmon-pink aura deepening to dark grey behind the distant mountains, and throwing POP’s splendidly battlemented set into sharp relief (no pretentious nonsense here about making the opera “relevant” by giving it some pointless contemporary transplant!). 

Donizetti in 1835, at the time of composing
Lucia di Lammermoor (artist unknown).
The shape of the terrace necessitated the orchestra being placed to the far left rather than centrally between stage and audience, virtually out of the latter’s sight but fortunately not (quite) out of earshot. Indeed this position, immediately in front of the boundary wall, may have helped in throwing their sound forward a little but also, I fear, gave the conductor Isaac Selya a crick in the neck from having constantly to turn his head sharp right in order to keep contact between singers and players. 

Of course, there is an aural price to pay for an out-door setting, and that’s the total lack of resonance. However, the ear adjusted pretty quickly to the etiolated orchestral sound, and I for one found letting nature take its course far preferable to any sort of crude amplification. Doubtless due to geography and economics, the string strength was chamber-sized, but Donizetti’s full complement of woodwind, horns, trumpets, harp, and percussion were, I think, present. Interestingly, the timpani seemed to be the small historical kind that have a much lighter, dryer sound than modern instruments, so that the opera’s opening – two pianissimo drum taps – was virtually inaudible. Indeed I suspect that much of the audience, still preoccupied with the wine and nibbles POP generously included in the table seating price, didn’t realize the opera had actually begun. 

l: Daniel Scofield (Enrico);
r: Robert Norman (Normanno).
Having been to similar open-air performances where conviviality definitely trumped attention, I had some concern about audience response, but need not have worried. Donizetti’s dramatic instinct brings his principal villain into the action very quickly, and baritone Daniel Scofield as Lucia’s duplicitous, vengeful, and manipulative brother Enrico duly seized the moment, and roared and snarled his beard-thrusting, tam o’shanter-quivering, kilt-swirling way into the role, stilling audience murmurs and cellphone-checking by sheer force of personality. 

Donizetti is equally canny in holding back the appearance of his titular heroine to the first Act’s second scene, when the main bones of the plot have already been made clear previously through exchanges between Enrico, Normanno his sidekick heavy (Robert Norman, tenor, equally villainous with eye patch), and Raimondo the family chaplain (Nicholas Boragno, bass-baritone, making the best of this rather thankless I-just-want-everyone-to-get-on-together part). 

l: Danielle Bond (Alisa); centre: Jamie Chamberlin (Lucia); r: Silent ghost.
The demanding title role was shared across POP’s five performances by sopranos Bevin Hill and Jamie Chamberlin, who in the final evening that we enjoyed was fully up to its considerable demands, once a slight tendency early on to flounce had disappeared as the character’s helplessness vulnerability grew. Her vocal credentials of purity of tone and coloratura skill that never went over the top into self-indulgence were immediately apparent in her first long duet with her handmaid Alisa (Danielle Bond, mezzo-soprano, in the other rather thankless role), where Josh Shaw’s production also included the fine imaginative touch (above) of bringing on the ghost of a girl killed on the very same spot by a jealous ancestor, clearly visible to Lucia but not to Alisa, and made up like a fugitive from “The Ring” – all lank black hair, ashen limbs, and hollowed-out eyes. 

Jamie Chamberlin (Lucia)
nails the "Mad Scene".
After this exchange and the departure of both handmaid and ghost, the other principal, the equally doomed Edgardo, subject of Lucia’s passion and Enrico’s hate, appears. He was sung by Nathan Granner, tenor, and proved very much an equal partner with Ms Chamberlin in their long love-duet. Both singers really came into their own in the final act, however. 

It was a pity that time constraint necessitated the omission of the first scene of Act 3, where Enrico challenges Edgardo to a duel. This made somewhat precipitate the onset of Lucia’s famous “Mad Scene” at the height of the festivities to “celebrate” her forced marriage to hapless stooge Arturo (William Grundler, tenor, a little thin of voice, maybe designedly so). However, when she appeared (left) at the literal high-point of the set, bloody-robed and holding the dagger with which she has just dispatched her short-lived husband, Ms Chamberlin made the scene equally the real high point vocally and dramatically that it should be. Not the least remarkable aspect was her sotto voce duet with the first flute in the closing moments, voice and instrument in perfect alignment, a tribute not only to singer and player but also to Mr Selya’s baton, holding everything together masterfully. 

Nathan Granner (Edgardo).
After Lucia wafts away amidst the wreckage of the party to die off-stage, accompanied here again by the silent presence of the ghost, the challenge for Mr Granner was considerable in having to refocus the audience’s attention, near the end of a longish evening, on the love-lost Edgardo’s tragic plight. However, he rose to the moment splendidly, though I wonder why the production had his character stabbed by the villainous Normanno rather than his own hand? Maybe this is an alternative tradition in Lucia di Lammermoor performances. 

The opera’s other celebrated high point is Donizetti’s tour-de-force sextet of all the principals apart from Normanno as the extended finale of Act 2. This underlined how beautifully matched all the voices were, with no-one grandstanding but each taking the opportunities for expressivity afforded by the composer (definitely bel canto rather than “can belto”). This scene must be a devil to bring off successfully, with the chorus also needing to be integrated. POP’s not numerous but highly skilled choristers also made the most of their music, and even essayed a bit of Scottish dancing in the scene of marriage celebrations, albeit a little carefully given the shallowness of the stage area. The company should be proud of their achievement, which was enthusiastically applauded and cheered. 


Pacific Opera Project, Forest Lawn, Glendale, 7 p.m., September 17 2017.
Images: Donizetti: Wikimedia Commons; Production photos: Martha Benedict.

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Tuesday, September 19, 2017

The Grimsleys and San Diego Opera: All in the Family

Photo: SORS Seattle

INTERVIEW: San Diego Opera

Civic Theatre

On Oct. 14, San Diego Opera’s 2017-2108 season will open with several firsts. Gilbert & Sullivan’s much-loved comedy, The Pirates of Penzance, will be the company’s first performances of English operetta. Perennial SDO favorite bass-baritone Greer Grimsley will share the stage with his real-life wife Luretta Bybee in her SDO debut.

Photo: SORS Seattle
The husband and wife team frequently have performed on stage together, most recently in Seattle Opera’s Flying Dutchman and in Sweeney Todd with Vancouver Opera. The excitement is palpable among San Diego opera lovers to witness this family collaboration in the SDO season opener at the Civic Theatre.

Erica Miner: As always, San Diego is thrilled that you’re coming back, Greer! We can’t get enough of you here. Since singing Scarpia here in Tosca in 2016, what are some of the highlights of your past year and a half?

Greer Grimsley: Oh my gosh. Right after the Tosca, Luretta and I were in Glimmerglass. Then I did the Finnish production of Götz Friedrich’s Walküre in Japan, went to Minnesota to do their new Rheingold and Siegfried. And I was at the Met. Now we’re home in New Orleans. 

EM: I recently interviewed Matthew Shilvock at San Francisco Opera. They’re so excited about your singing Wotan in their Ring next season. 

GG: I’m so excited about that. I’ve been friends with Francesca (Zambello) since we were both starting in the business. I am excited to take on her Ring. Though San Francisco is such a terrible place to be [Laughs]. 

EM: That Ring is going to be a major happening. 

GG: I think so. Oddly enough, a good friend of mine, Falk Struckmann, is going to be the Alberich. We first met at the beginning of our careers in Basel, Switzerland. I haven’t seen him much between then and when we saw each other at the Met for Fidelio. It was like very little time had passed. It was nice to be connected again. We’re going to be working together in San Francisco and Dallas, for Dutchman

EM: You and Luretta recently celebrated your 30th wedding anniversary. Congratulations! 

GG: Thank you! 

EM: Did you start performing together before or after you married? 

Luretta Bybee: We met on a tour with Houston Grand Opera, which used to be the old Texas Opera Theatre tour. He was singing Escamillo, I was singing Carmen. Then we synchronistically ended up on the Peter Brook Carmen tour. It was a real luxury to spend our first two years together working, a way to really get to know each other. It actually started 32 years ago. Most of that time, we were performing. 

EM: And somehow you found time to get married. 

GG: [Laughs] Two years after. 

LB: We got married in Central City, when I was performing Suzuki. 

EM: You’re performing Suzuki, and dealing with a married guy who leaves his first wife and marries someone else. That’s an interesting scenario. 

LB: I had been married once before, and Greer twice before. We were pretty much free and easy at that point and had no plans to get married in Central City. But the late conductor Mark Flint took it up on himself to plan our wedding, so we got married while we were there. 

EM: A conductor conducted your wedding, that’s amazing. 

GG: He actually ended up playing the organ for us in the service. In Central City. there’s a sweet old church right across the street from the opera house. That’s where we committed the deed. 

EM: A lovely story. Do you remember what you performed together right after you got married? 

LB: I went right back into performances at Central City. Where were we after that? I think I went to Miami to do Rossini’s Saliero. Greer was still kicking around, not getting much attention. I’m running my rear off trying to make ends meet. And people were trying to figure out what to do with him. 

GG: [Laughs.] I was trying to figure out what to do with myself. 

EM: Looks like you got some inspiration and luck from Luretta. 

GG: Of course. 

LB: And a lotta help! 

GG: [Laughs.] That’s true. 

EM: That’s what partnerships are about. As for Pirates, this will be the first time San Diego operagoers will see you two perform together on stage. What were some of your previous joint performances?

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
LB: We did lots of Carmens. 

GG: Le Nozze di Figaro. I did the Count, she did Cherubino. 

LB: Tales of Hoffmann. We were in the Ring together in Seattle every time. 

GG: Dutchman

EM: Yes, I remember it well. 

GG: Early on, Luretta was singing the Page in Salome. I just happened to be there with her and they lost their Second Soldier. I learned it very quickly and jumped in, so we’ve done that together as well [Laughs]. 

LB: And Sweeney Todd

EM: Re Salome, while I was at Santa Fe I spoke with their wig director David Zimmerman. Do you know that your head is still there? 

GG: [Laughs] Yes, I do! From when I was John the Baptist. 

LB: We also have one of his heads in a cabinet in the garage, the first one that was ever made. 

GG: [Laughs] You would call it a Paleo head, from the time where they actually put plaster on your face. I had to hold my neck with a towel, in a chair, two straws in my nose, while they applied the plaster to my face to make a mold. It’s seen better days, but I guess in a pinch it could be used [Laughs]. 

LB: I remember having to send it overseas to him for some production. It was wrapped up and I had to declare what it was. It was sort of bizarre trying to explain it to the Fedex guy, “This is my husband’s head for a show.” 

EM: They’ve made movies with that theme. 

LB, GG: [Laugh.] 

EM: Your head is floating around the world. Not many people have that distinction. What are some of the pros and cons of sharing the stage with your spouse?

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
LB: I’ve been wondering about that for lots of years. There are cons that people would expect from couples sharing the limelight - egos - but for us there’s never been an egotistical issue, maybe because in a way we’ve been on different trajectories. I love the theatre and I’ve had plenty of time singing title roles. After (daughter) Emma was born, I lost the look for the high pressure of being the person that the show rode on. So, I’m really happy doing secondary roles, which keeps my foot in the door. I’m also in my 15th year of teaching, and am doing a blog. We never butted heads like a lot of our colleagues. Greer, when he’s under pressure doing big parts, doesn’t carry a lot of baggage with it. I remember reading the book about George London, how he would check into a hotel the night before singing Wotan. The family would have to stay away. It was set up early on when we had Emma, and Greer was doing Giovanni, that if he needed to he got up in the middle of the night, rocked her or whatever. So there’s never been this “mystique” around what’s necessary for performing. We tend to perform best when we keep things as normal as possible. 

GG: And oddly enough I’ve never found a downside performing with Luretta. That’s through all situations. No matter what, if there was something we were in need of, advice, whatever, there was never any ego in the way. We always knew we were operating for each other’s best interests. The trust factor is also a part of performing together. Knowing there’s someone there who knows you so well that you trust, who’s also reassuring. 

LB: It sounds Pollyanna-ish, but if you’re really invested in the other person’s well-being and success, all you want to do is celebrate it. It doesn’t pose any problem, really. 

EM: It’s a testament to how balanced you are, as people, as personalities. It’s also the key to a successful partnership offstage. It’s not easy when you’re opera singers, but you seem to come to it from a very balanced perspective. I admire that. 

LB: Don’t get me wrong, we’ve definitely had our ups and downs. 

GG: [Laughs.] 

LB: But we’re on the same page about looking for balance in our lives. That helps a lot. 

EM: Luretta, you’ve performed in a number of lighter operatic works, notably H.M.S. Pinafore and A Little Night Music. For you, Greer, this seems to be more of a departure from your heavier repertoire. What is the appeal for you in works like Pirates?

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
GG: The appeal is being together. Early on in my career I did Pirates, Carousel, Desert Song. Student Prince I did several times, also Merry Widow. I think I came to opera because I loved music theatre. I studied classically because I wanted to have an edge in the theatre, and fell in love with opera. But I do love the music theatre genre. I look at it as another facet of performing possibility. When the Pirates opportunity came up in San Diego, we were scheduled to do it with Emma as well. It was originally supposed to be the three of us. That was the big draw, to do this together. Then Emma was employed to do the Phantom of the Opera tour, an opportunity for her that we all agreed was not to be missed. She’s exploring all facets of performing as far as singing is concerned. I think it’s different now for young singers than it was for us. I hope we’ll get away from being segregated as classical artists vs. musical theatre, and it will have a cross-pollination again. 

LB: Also, we love San Diego. I did a Young Artists program there before I really got started. Then I came back for two seasons – Mrs. Sedley in Peter Grimes and one of the dancers in Merry Widow. I’ve made a lot of friends there. We just really like San Diego. 

EM: What’s not to like? 

LB: In roles where it’s just a romp and there’s not a huge amount of pressure, you can really just sit and enjoy a sunset… and we love both the director (Seán Curran) and the conductor (Evan Rogister). We’re so excited about that. Seán is just a ditch - I did a Candide and (to Greer) you did a Salome with him. Remember where we all stripped naked because he wanted us all depraved? [Laughs.] 

GG: [Laughs.] I’m not sure we should include that. 

LB: He wouldn’t care, he loved it. And Evan we met when he was assistant conductor on the Ring cycles in Seattle. 

GG: He’s gone on to have a wonderful career now. I sang with him after the Ring a couple years ago in Salome in Dallas. He’s developed into a fine young conductor. 

EM: About Emma, was she bitten by the performance bug because you encouraged her, or was just around it all the time, or did she come to it on her own? 

GG: I don’t think we’ve come down to a single answer. 

LB: I think the exposure made a huge impression on her. Meeting and getting to know all these fabulous artists who are well beyond petty parts of the business that young singers have to deal with, though sometimes she says she feels very much alone as a young singer because her peers don’t really understand - they’re just learning what happens in big productions in big companies. Diane Zola, who ran the Houston program for years and is artistic administrator there now - she was maid of honor at our wedding, we’re very good friends. About Diane Emma said, “Mom, it’s really hard when people bring up Diane Zola and say she’s so important, and I remember her being at my first birthday party and babysitting me.” But I think Emma is so enamored of the art form of opera. she got a degree in English and Women’s Studies, so there are parts of opera she thinks are chauvinistic and disappointing, but she has a very small group of friends who love opera, and want to see it survive in a good way. They call it, “Fighting the good fight.” Emma describes herself as living at the intersection of opera and musical theatre. In some ways her voice really thrives in musical theatre, she has a propensity for it. But I also remember her singing “C” above high “C” in perfect pitch - she was uncanny that way - and she can hear parts in the orchestra. She sat for hours, listening and never got bored. She was always curious. The stage manager would make her honorary stage manager. Her big treat was rolling up the tape from the floor at the end of rehearsal. We had a closet full of balls of masking tape. 

GG: [Laughs.] I don’t think it was osmosis, but she was exposed constantly. She did go through this phase in high school where she didn’t want to have anything to do with singing. She just stepped back. Then she joined the choir. But she never gave us any inclination that she was driving for it. 

EM: Maybe she didn’t know herself. 

GG: I think so. But it somewhat clarified for her when she got to New Orleans here to study. 

LB: I don’t know - I ask myself this question everyday - I think guiding someone toward passion for a certain art form is a good thing. I remember two things that happened with Emma. One was that she made a comment at some point that she was bored. I said, “You can be bored if you want. Stupid people get bored, and you’re not stupid.” The other thing I said - I caught her at a good time when she was enjoying a rehearsal - was, “Isn’t this exciting?’ she said yes, and I said, “And you’re welcome to be here anytime, as long as you can be quiet and not get yourself in trouble.” That stuck with her. She could sit for hours. Sometimes she would draw pictures of what was going on, or take her own notes for her dad and me. “You should be careful with the spada, the sword, when you’re wrestling with Don José.” 

GG: Yes [Laughs]. 

EM: That’s amazing. 

LB: I guess she really was in love with it, wanted to be a part of it so much. 

EM: What will you two being performing together in the near future? 

LB: The only thing officially on the books and signed is Dutchman in Dallas. Next month at Loyola we’re having a Dramatic Voice Symposium. Peter Volpe will be here, Brenda Harris, Melanie Helton, possibly Allan Glassman, among others, and the two of us. We’re going to do a Gala concert at the end. Plus there’s a discussion of a possible Sweeney Todd that hasn’t been solidified. 

GG: It’s just when the opportunities come up. Sometimes they come up in clusters. Sometimes it takes a while [Laughs]. We’re always looking for that chance. 

EM: And the universe will bring it to you. Opera lovers are always looking for opportunities to see the both of you, and I can’t wait to see you on stage in San Diego! Thank you so much, you two, for spending time with me. 

LB: It’s wonderful to talk to you. 

San Diego Opera’s The Pirates of Penzance will run at the San Diego Civic Theatre from Oct. 14-22  and will be broadcast on October 21, 2017 at 8 PM on KPBS radio, 89.5 FM (97.7 FM Calexico) and online at

Photo: Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera


Photo credits: SORS Seattle, Jeff Roffman, Atlanta Opera
Erica Miner can be reached at: [email protected]

Monday, September 18, 2017

Multi-talented Jonathan Sussman at “The Interludes”


Jonathan and Alan Sussman play Schubert, Bach, Bruch, Dutilleux, Borne and Paganini at First Lutheran

Jonathan Sussman.
The flyer for the new seasons’s first “The Interludes” recital at First Lutheran Church, Torrance, promised “flutist, violist, pianist, and composer” Jonathan Sussman, who (the program note went on to tell us) is a double major at USC studying flute at the Thornton School of Music and biomedical engineering at the Viterbi School of Engineering. Many talents indeed! In the recital, his composing did not figure, but otherwise there was plenty to impress. 

His pianism was on display first, in company with that of his father, Alan Sussman, in Schubert’s four-hands/one-piano Marche caractéristique in C Op.121 No.1 D886b, for which there seems to be no clear evidence of date. As with episodes of “The Twilight Zone”, there’s always more to discover in Schubert’s virtually limitless output, and I had not previously come across this march. Prior scoping of YouTube performances revealed a wide range of possible tempi, from plodding to hell-for-leather. Fortunately, the Sussmans’ inclined to the latter (though their attack, vehement as well as athletic, tested First Lutheran’s piano), keeping the potential tedium of the march’s many repetitions at bay, even with a full clutch of repeats. Clearly it’s a minor item in the great Schubertian canon, but even so, the passing sideways harmonic shifts, and the more delicate beauty of its trio section, signaled the genius behind it. 

Jonathan next took up his flute, and his performance, with his father at the piano, of J.S. Bach’s Sonata in E minor for flute and continuo BWV 1034 gained confidence as it proceeded. After accounts of the first, Adagio ma non tanto, and second, Allegro, movements that seemed to me a little careful, the following Andante evinced some nice breath control in the movement’s long spacious phrases, while both players brought an airborne, improvisatory quality to their rapid contrapuntal interactions in the final Allegro

Now for the viola. The original version of Max Bruch’s Kol Nidrei Op.47 is styled, somewhat unusually, as being for ‘cello with orchestra and harp, but it also exists in various arrangements and transcriptions. One for viola and piano was made as recently as 2014 by one Orfeo Mandozzi, though the Sussmans did not clarify whether what they played was this or another. Jonathan immediately showed an ease with the instrument quite equal to that with the flute, but in the music itself I found the substitution of viola for ‘cello diminished the heft of the Adagio ma non troppo opening, though in the central Un poco piú animato it gave a delicacy to the texture, in company with the piano doing its best to impersonate the harp. 

Henri Dutilleux at approximately the time
of composition of his Flute Sonatine.
The very long-lived Henri Dutilleux (1916-2013) was one of the giants of 20th century French music, and famously self-critical. One of the early works that he later repudiated was his Sonatine for flute and piano of 1943, and the Sussmans’ performance made one grateful that the composer’s dissatisfaction never became an embargo.

This was the recital’s highlight for me, a work of teeming invention across its 10-minute span. The first of the three brief movements is amiable enough – an equal partnership of the two instruments in a cool, medium-paced discourse – but the following Andante, at first juxtaposing piano broodings with arabesques on the flute, pulls the two instruments together with growing tension until it precipitates the wild Anime finale, projected with great élan by Jonathan and his father. Wonderful stuff!

After this, two less substantial items. First came one of the many fantasias/potpourris/selections derived by other composers from the fertile soil Bizet laid down in his Carmen. This was the Fantaisie Brillante by François Borne, who puts the flute through its paces, faithfully underpinned by the piano, in virtuosic reworkings of some of the opera’s most familiar numbers. Finally – as an unprogrammed encore – Jonathan Sussman took the stage alone in a solo flute rendering of Paganini’s Caprice No.24 from his set of 24 – the familiar one that has probably been the subject of even more variations and reimaginings than the tunes from Carmen. I don’t know whether this was a literal transcription of the complete original violin Caprice, but it certainly sounded as finger-tangling, and was enthusiastically applauded by the Interludes audience.


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, September 16, 2017.
Photos: Jonathan Sussmann: courtesy UCLA; Henri Dutilleux: courtesy Radio France.

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Wednesday, September 13, 2017

More new stars shine at Mount Wilson


Works for flute quartet, Mount Wilson Observatory

l-r: Sara Andon, Alyssa Park, Cécilia Tsan, Alma Fernandez.
Of course, subsequent visits can never quite match the impact of one’s first encounter with such an astonishing new music venue as the dome of the 100-inch reflecting telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory, but the pleasurable anticipation that built up while re-negotiating all those hairpin turns on the road up to the Observatory made up for it. Once again Cécilia Tsan, Artistic Director of this new venture of Sunday afternoon summer concerts in the dome, had devised a fascinating and unhackneyed program for herself (playing ‘cello—probably the largest instrument that can be safely carried up the long and precipitous metal ladder leading to the telescope floor!) and her colleagues Sara Andon (flute), Alyssa Park (violin) and Alma Fernandez (viola). 

Three works by three highly prolific masters from the 18th and 20th centuries, Mozart, Martinů, and Villa-Lobos, formed the main part of the program. Mozart’s Flute Quartet in D major K.285 is the first of his four in the genre, probably composed in 1777-78. It’s a slender three-movement piece in which the flute is the star of the show from the outset, and this immediately demonstrated the extraordinary clarity and impact of high woodwind tone within the great steel dome. Due I am sure to the long delay time of the acoustic, the quartet took the first movement Allegro and Rondo finale at fairly relaxed speeds, and avoided the consequent lengthening of playing-time by omitting not only the rarely-observed second-half repeat in the first movement but also that of the exposition.

Bohuslav Martinů.
This was not a problem in my book, particularly as the title of the ensuing Three Madrigals for Violin and Viola H.313, composed by Bohuslav Martinů in 1949, belies their scale, range, and power just as does that of Kodály’s Duo for Violin and Cello Op.7, which Ms Tsan included in her previous recital here. The Martinů indeed for me was by some measure the highlight of the concert.

This great composer by some alchemy makes his two instruments sound like an orchestra, with Ms Park and Ms Fernandez seizing every one of the huge range of stylistic, rhythmic and timbral effects deployed across all three movements: simultaneous and alternating ostinati superimposed on Bohemian-Moravian folk rhythms in the first; overlapping tremolandi, like ripples on the seashore, overlain with what recalled a susurration of muted birdsong in the second; and a wild peasant dance in the third, where the violin and viola twirl and swirl uninhibitedly around each other. 

Having given the spotlight to the other string members of the group in this marvelous piece, Ms Tsan’s clever programming then led herself and Ms Andon to step forward in Heitor Villa-Lobos’s Assobio a Játo (The Jet Whistle) for Flute and ‘Cello W.493, like the Martinů a fairly late work in its composer's output, composed in 1950. It is similarly in three movements, the medium-paced first movement opening with a wide-ranging ‘cello cantilena against rhythmic tics and oscillations above from the flute. This is succeeded by a pensive Adagio meditation where the flute in its low register takes the melodic lead while the ‘cello gravely explores the depths beneath, and then a final hell-for-leather Vivo movement that ends in a Prestissimo carrying the following footnoted injunction in the score: “The only way to achieve the effect the composer wishes, as indicated by the words imitando fischi in toni ascendenti, is to blow into the embouchure fff as if one were warming up the instrument on a cold day(!).” Ms Andon blew as lustily as could be imagined, achieving a sound I’m sure had never been heard in the dome in its entire 100-year history…

Next came four film-music selections. Big film-music fan though I am, I can’t avoid the built-in problem that what can superbly underpin and intensify the mood of a movie scene may not stand up so well as a whole musical experience when it appears in a concert setting divorced from the visuals. There’s often not much to be done with a self-contained romantic theme other than to noodle around and then restate it, and for me diminishing returns began to set in when, after two pieces from Georges Delerue’s score to Jean-Luc Godard’s Le Mépris (“Contempt”) and one from John Williams’ Star Wars, a set from Ennio Morricone’s score to Cinema Paradiso rather outstayed its welcome. 

The late Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia
in the original "Star Wars."
However, as arranged by Patrick O’Malley for these forces (in all the above items), the husky magic of the much-loved “Princess Leia’s Theme” played on an alto flute in that unique environment was unmissable and unforgettable, while in conclusion John Williams’ versatility was underlined (as if it needed to be!) with the brief “Double Trouble” number from Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, arranged for flute, violin, viola and ‘cello by Simone Pedroni. 

I very much hope that this short initial season of concerts has been as big a success from Mount Wilson Observatory’s viewpoint as it undoubtedly was from the audiences’, and that after winter snows have come and gone, more great music will be heard in the great dome next year. 


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 10 September 2017, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: The performers: Ruth Borst Punt; Carrie Fisher: People Movies; Mount Wilson Observatory: Roger Ressmeyer/Corbis, courtesy Los Angeles Magazine

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