Sunday, March 31, 2019

War and Peace in Long Beach


REVIEW

Long Beach Chorale and Chamber Orchestra, Long Beach
JIM RUGGIRELLO

Joseph Haydn's Mass in Time of War (Missa in tempore belli Hob. XXII/9) is the second of the six glorious mass settings (altogether he wrote 14) composed by the master late in his long life. Though Haydn by now lived in Vienna, he still worked part time for the wealthy Esterhazy family, who resided at their palace in Eisenstadt, and one of his duties was to compose a mass every year for the Princess Maria Hermengild's name-day.

Joseph Haydn in 1791.
The title of this one, written in 1796, was bestowed by Haydn himself on the title page and alludes to a time when Austria and France were at war, and Vienna was in a state of high anxiety; Napoleon's army was on the march. The drums of war pound menacingly in the Agnus Dei, and the solo timpani strokes inspired this work's other sobriquet, the Paukenmesse; pauken is the German word for timpani. Even the Dona nobis pacem, with its drums and trumpet flourishes, has a militaristic air. One suspects that for the Austrians, "peace" meant defeating the French in battle. Alas, it was not to be; Napoleon occupied Vienna, but showed his artistic sensibilities by posting an honor guard around Haydn's house.

Elsewhere, the mood of the piece shifts from joy to hope to despair, as the music itself shows the complete mastery of choral, solo, and instrumental writing Haydn had achieved by this stage of his career, which also saw the composition of his choral/orchestral masterwork, The Creation.

The Long Beach Chorale and Chamber Orchestra, now in its 30th year, has been under the direction of Eliza Rubenstein for half that time. Rubenstein, who teaches at Orange Coast College, has molded this amateur ensemble into a marvelous performing instrument. Their sound is ideal for late Classical music: transparent, beautiful, with a blend and balance that are the envy of area professional ensembles. In addition, they sing with a joy in music-making that is palpable, and infectious.

Their performance of this Haydn Mass, on a pleasant Sunday afternoon at Grace First Presbyterian Church in Long Beach, reflected the group's virtues. They had power aplenty for the forte passages, while being able to scale down to a hushed pianissimo without losing tonal quality. And although the personnel changes from concert to concert, the Chamber Orchestra draws from a regular pool of musicians. In Southern California, that means playing of the highest quality, and under Rubenstein's firm yet flexible baton, the result is a tight, wonderfully expressive ensemble.

Eliza Rubenstein.
Soprano Marlissa Hudson has a bright, light soprano that suits this music well, and she sang the many ornamental roulades in her part impeccably. Alexandra Rupp's warm, clear mezzo was very pleasing to the ear. David Stoneman, a frequent Chorale guest, possesses a plummy bass-baritone that dominated the quartet passages, although he sang his solos smoothly enough. Personally, I found tenor Daniel Morales' reedy tone unattractive, but he sang with assurance.

Augusta Read Thomas.
Cannily, Rubenstein filled out the hour-long concert with two complementary works that did not take rehearsal time away from her chorus. Hudson began with Plea for Peace, a wordless vocalise over string quartet composed in 2017 by Augusta Read Thomas. The piece was commissioned for the 75th anniversary of Chicago Pile-1, the first artificial nuclear reactor. Although since dismantled, the reactor, and Thomas' music, serve to enable contemplation of humankind's capacity for innovation and creation as well as total destruction. The background, given in the excellent program notes and Rubenstein's spoken introduction, makes the work evocative and moving. Sometimes words aren't necessary.

August Jaeger.
Finally came a short work for the orchestra alone, the Elegy, Op. 58 by Sir Edward Elgar. The piece was written at the death of Elgar's close friend, champion, and publisher August Jaeger, characterized as "Nimrod" in the composer's Enigma Variations, Op. 36. There was nothing here of contemporary significance, seemingly, but then we read in the program notes that the Chorale had dedicated this performance to victims of the recent Christchurch massacre and other terrorist acts. In any event, the orchestra played beautifully.

This concert was played to a full house on the afternoon I attended, and deservedly so. Long Beach Chorale and Chamber Orchestra delivered their usual product, intelligently programmed and exquisitely performed. And in June, they take this show on the road to Carnegie Hall.

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Long Beach Chorale and Chamber Orchestra, Grace First Presbyterian Church, Long Beach, 4:00 p.m., Sunday, March 24, 2019.

Photos: Haydn: Portrait by Thomas Hardy; Eliza Rubenstein: bach-cantatas.com; Augusta Read Thomas: composer's website; August Jaeger: enigmathemeunmasked.blogspot.com

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Scott Quinn Analyzes Don José’s Deepest Secrets

Courtesy of the Artist
INTERVIEW: Scott Quinn 

McCaw Hall, Seattle
ERICA MINER 

Seattle Opera’s upcoming Carmen features instantly recognizable music, an opulent new production, and a number of company debuts. Tenor Scott Quinn as the opening night Don José is not among the latter; he last impressed Seattle audiences with his 2017 performance as Boris in Janacek’s Katya Kabanova

The Marshall, TX, native counts among his other roles such iconic ones as Alfredo in Verdi’s La Traviata and Rodolfo in La bohème, and less commonplace roles like Elemer in Richard Strauss’s Arabella. A veteran of San Francisco Opera prestigious Merola Opera Program, Quinn discusses his unusual journey, from his country music origins to the operatic domain. 

Erica Miner: Welcome back to Seattle, Scott! We enjoyed your debut performance in 2017’s Katya Kabanova

Scott Quinn: That was a lot of fun. just a dream for me. 

EM: Was it a hard role to debut in? 

SQ: It was incredibly difficult. Czech is not the easiest to sing in, but we had a wonderful coach. 

EM: Trial by fire. If you can do that, you can do anything. 

SQ: That’s right [Laughs]. I really believe that. 

EM: As a native of a part of Texas just across the border from Shreveport, Louisiana, land of country music, how did you first become involved with opera? 

SQ: I went to college at Stephen F. Austin University not really knowing what I wanted to do. I wanted to play baseball, but I didn't have the stature most players had, so I gave that up. I was taking voice lessons in the choir. I liked musical theater, but I’d never been interested in opera. I just wasn’t exposed to it. In East Texas you hunt, fish [Laughs] and listen to country music and classic rock, things like that. But when I had private voice lessons with a teacher from the university he said, “You really need to audition and see if you can get a scholarship. That might help you decide what you want to do.” I did, and got a small scholarship, which helped with some of my school—get my basics done, sing a little bit and have time to change my major. 

EM: What did you first sing? 

SQ: The funny thing is, the very first opera I sang in was Carmen. As Morales. I was a baritone at the time, or so I thought. Once I was onstage singing I thought, “Wow, I really enjoy this, something I’ve never experienced before.” We only did one opera a year, always in English, but it still fascinated me. Then I went to the University of Tennessee in Knoxville for a Masters. I couldn’t afford to go to school and live, so I went back home and found a job in the oil and gas business as a land man. 

EM: Oh my goodness. 

SQ: [Laughs] Yes! I did that for a couple of years. The money was great but there was still something missing. One day my mom saw in the newspaper that Shreveport was giving an opera competition. I’d been a good 2 years out of singing, but mom said, “Why not go do it. If you don’t make it to the semis, you can just walk away.” That was kind of my mentality. I’d give it one more shot. I still hadn’t had formal training. I did make the semis and I thought, “Well, that’s nice.” I sang the Flower Song and De’ miei bollenti spiriti and WON the thing. It was just Shreveport, but there were singers from Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music there. I hadn’t been singing for 2 years, my diction was probably terrible, and I was backstage drinking coffee and eating donuts right before I sang while everybody else was drinking their water [Laughs]. I didn’t think I had a chance—and ended up winning. I thought, “This is a sign.” From there I had a couple of small gigs. Then Jonathan Pell, general director of Dallas Opera, heard me and asked if I wanted to be their artist-in-residence. I did some small roles. I still didn’t get a lot of training, just stage training, though I got to be onstage and watch how other singers worked. Probably the most vital thing for a singer is to be around people who’ve sung for a long time. 

EM: Agreed. You covered the role of Greenhorn for Jake Heggie’s Moby Dick in Dallas, which you consider your first big break. 

SQ: That was the last thing I did with them prior to going to the Houston studio. Patrick Summers was conducting. 

EM: That was the world premiere, yes? 

SQ: Yes. Everything had a cover because in a world premiere the show has to go on, no matter what. All the covers got to sing for Maestro. I’ll never forget, as I was walking out of the building, he took me aside. I thought, “Oh no, I’ve screwed this up.” 

EM: “‘What have I done?’” 

SQ: [Laughs] Exactly. He said, “Have you ever considered being in the Houston Grand Opera Studio?” I said, “Actually, no, but that sounds enticing.” He said, “Those auditions and the Merola auditions are going on right now. If I can get you an audition in Chicago, would you be able to do that?” I said yes, of course. 

EM: Merola is a very big deal. 

SQ: Absolutely. I flew to Chicago, kind of last minute, and got into both Merola and Houston, and did one right after the other. I was singing well at the time so I don’t feel like there were any favors done for me. I was in Houston for 3 years—most people do 2 but I was so raw and green that I needed that extra year of help, especially with my languages and musicality, things you can build other than just natural gifts. I’ve been working almost non-stop since then. Those programs just rocketed me into this business. My first thing out of the studio was Ferrando in Così fan tutte. It was the hardest thing for me because it’s so much recit. But I was able to do it. 2 or 3 years prior, I’d have said there was no chance. 

EM: Mozart has its own special difficulties. 

SQ: Exactly. But I’m so glad to be here now. Seattle is one of the top companies in America, and I’m so blessed to bring one of my favorite roles. I’ve only done Don José once before, but I love the opera, the character, and I love that I’m coming back to sing it in Seattle. 

EM: That role is one of the most iconic and most difficult in the repertoire. As to his character, the contrast between him and Carmen is huge, and their personalities are so different. How would you describe those differences?

Steven Pisano
SQ: I would call him a manic depressive, bipolar. He changes his mood on a dime. He’s so enamored of Carmen, but it’s nobody he would ever consider for himself. He thinks Micaela is too good for him. That’s why he steers clear of that situation. At first he doesn’t know what to think of Carmen. He want to throw her flower away but he holds on to it and has it throughout his prison sentence. 

EM: He’s entirely smitten with her and doesn't know why. 

SQ: Exactly. Most people don’t know that before the story he actually had committed murder. He beat someone at a game; that person picked a fight and José ended up killing him. He either had to go to prison or become a soldier. 

EM: So he wasn’t there by choice. 

SQ: Right. He’s not happy already about his situation. He also was trying to become a priest, which adds another layer. When he kills Carmen in the end he says, “Damn you.” I wonder if he sending her to hell. That’s just me reading into his upbringing. He sees a lot of his mother in Micaela, but there’s just something fascinating about Carmen—infatuation is the best word. 

EM: Many are infatuated, but in his case is it the fact that he’s a country bumpkin and he’s overwhelmed with her urbane sophistication and experience? 

SQ: Yes, and she likes him because he’s not paying any attention to her. 

EM: The less he says, the better. 

SQ: [Laughs]. She’s for sure the controlling one in the relationship. She gets what she wants.

Steven Pisano
EM: Is this Seattle Carmen your first main stage Don José? 

SQ: I did it with Arizona Opera, a nice way to test out the role. It’s similar to how I’m doing my first Cavaradossi right now in North Carolina. 2 performances and I wish there were 50 more. I love this role, just like I love Don José. 


EM: Two roles that are at the top of most tenors’ lists. 

SQ: Absolutely. Two of the most famous roles and arias. There’s always a Tosca or a Carmen going on somewhere in the world. 

EM: Of those 2 languages, is there one that you prefer to sing? 

SQ: Italian, by far. It just sits easier for me, it flows better. However, French isn’t as difficult as German. It still has the same legato flow as Italian. In Czech it’s sung exactly how a speaker would speak it, that’s the rhythm of everything in Katya. Once you have the essentials of the language down, it’s much easier to sing. But Italian is my bread and butter, the one I do the most. Don José is the only French role I’ve performed onstage. I’m looking forward to getting better at my French. You can’t get out all the nasal sounds and still sing a pure sound. I try to listen to native French speakers—Alagna comes to mind—it’s so much different than an American singer singing French. 

EM: What’s coming up for you in the near future, and which roles are you dying to sing? 

SQ: Luckily I’ve gotten to check off some of my top, Cavaradossi being one of them. Coming up I’m singing the Duke (Rigoletto) in Houston. Then I have my Pittsburgh debut as Don José next season. I’m excited about those. Houston is kind of my home base, and Pittsburgh—I haven’t done anything in the northeast and I’m trying to inch my way up to New York [Laughs]. This is the first time I’ve had to learn 2 big roles at once, though I’ve done Carmen before. I think every tenor wants to sing Calaf, but that’s years away for me. I like the challenge of the role. Radames as well, and Otello. Things that I may not develop into, but if I had a chance I would pick those. 

EM: Everybody should have a wish list. And that one sounds pretty good. Have you sung in Russian? 

SQ: I did Lensky in Eugene Onegin for the Northern Lights Music Festival in Embarrass, Minnesota [Laughs]. But they brought people from the Mariinsky—singers, director, more than half the cast was Russian. The conductor was American but he’s been working in Russia for many years. It was the best way for me to learn my first Russian role. On my feet, as I’m staging, getting a diction lesson, such a wonderful experience. 

EM: What a way to learn it, surrounded by Russians. 

SQ: It was incredible. That also is one of my top roles that I love to sing, one I hope to sing again. 

EM: I have no doubt you will. It’s been such a pleasure to talk to you, Scott. Thank you. I’m looking forward to your Don José! 

Seattle Opera’s Carmen opens May 4 and runs through May 19, 2019

Steven Pisano
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Photo credits: Courtesy of the Artist; Steven Pisano 
Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Bringuier Merges Gershwin with Ravel in LA



INTERVIEW: Lionel Bringuier 

Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles
ERICA MINER 

LA Philharmonic assistant conductor Lionel Bringuier combines Gallic expertise with American insights in a four-concert series with the orchestra on March 28-31 in a program mingling Gershwin’s Cuban Overture and An American in Paris with Ravel’s Valses nobles et sentimentales and Piano Concerto in G, with soloist Hélène Grimaud. 

Bringuier’s youthful age belies his already vast musical maturity and experience. Recipient of numerous prestigious awards from the French government, he was named the youngest ever Assistant Conductor of the LA Philharmonic in 2007 at the age of 20. He counts the London Symphony Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic, Staatskapelle Dresden and Cleveland and Chicago Symphony Orchestras among the cadre of ensembles with which he has appeared, and recently was re-engaged by the Royal Swedish Opera to helm a new production of Verdi’s Rigoletto

Erica Miner: Among the mentors in your conducting studies, is there one in particular who most influenced and impacted your career journey? 

Lionel Bringuier: Yes, absolutely. As a student at the Paris Conservatory, I had a few different influences. One of them was Zsolt Nagy, who is from the Hungarian school, which is why I love to conduct composers like Bartók and Ligety. The other is Péter Eötvös, who was his teacher. As a student in Paris, I got a lot of influence from Pierre Boulez, who I was fortunate enough to meet a few times, and who said to always trust the score and what the composer wanted and to build the interpretation from there. I was also going to many rehearsals at the Orchestre National de France, where they had fantastic guest conductors such as Riccardo Muti and Bernard Haitink, and I was always very influenced by seeing them work. Esa-Pekka Salonen was very important for me when I got my first position with the LA Phil—to see his work, to get to talk to him. And then, for four years, I was very lucky to be resident conductor under Gustavo Dudamel, and it has been a great time and a great influence from all of them. 

EM: How would you describe your experience as the youngest ever Assistant Conductor of the Philharmonic under Dudamel, who also began his career with the orchestra at a very young age? 

LB: With Gustavo, we had a very close relationship, and I'd see him not only in rehearsals and concerts but we'd also go out for lunch or dinner and talk about many things, including music but also the life of a conductor. To see how he handled the duties of Music Director of such a great orchestra at such a young age helped me a lot, especially when I was appointed Music Director of Tonhalle Orchester Zürich. 

EM: He certainly is much respected for how he managed those orchestral responsibilities. What are your duties as the orchestra’s Resident Conductor? 

LB: This has been a very smooth process. I started as an Assistant Conductor, which means I spent almost the entire season with the orchestra and led anytime a conductor couldn't be there for any reason. For example, my first year there, I replaced Stéphane Denève on a subscription concert when he was unable to travel due to his wife being in labor with their first baby. It was a great honor, at only 21, and it was a great opportunity. 

EM: That’s amazing. Even Leonard Bernstein was older than that when made his debut with the New York Philharmonic. 

LB: Any time a conductor was sick or couldn't make it, the orchestra asked me to conduct. Then, after two years as Assistant Conductor, I was promoted to Associate Conductor for 2 years, and now resident conductor. I'm very grateful and appreciate my great relationship with the orchestra. As the years continued as resident conductor, we kept our great relationship and I've conducted much more often, including at the great Hollywood Bowl. It's a great honor because it's a great orchestra and I love all of the repertoire we've done.

EM: You’ve chosen to bookend this weekend’s LA Philharmonic program of Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and Valses nobles et sentimentales with two Gershwin works, the Cuban Overture and An American in Paris. How would you describe the musical and cultural connections between all of these works? 

LB: Well, definitely Gershwin and Ravel are two composers I can associate with and whose music I conduct regularly. We also know that they met and Gershwin asked Ravel for advice, who replied "I don't need to give you advice or teach you anything, or you will write bad Ravel. If you write your way, you'll write great Gershwin." The two had an influence on each other. For me to perform American in Paris in the US, I feel very privileged. I feel very close to this piece and can imagine the atmosphere, and even the streets where Gershwin was when composed the piece, as I lived in Paris for many years. It's one of the most famous American pieces, so to conduct it with the LA Phil, my first time leading Gershwin with them, makes me very happy. 

EM: Do you have a long history of collaboration with your French compatriot, pianist Hélène Grimaud? 

LB: Oh, yes. We just performed four concerts together with the Dallas Symphony, but our first collaboration was in Monte Carlo where we performed the Ravel Piano Concerto. We've also performed together in Zurich and Gothenburg: Brahms Piano Concerto No. 1, Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4, and Ravel often. We plan to do more repertoire together. We don't have to talk or discuss much before we play, we just understand each other so well, it's like playing chamber music with her. It's always a great joy. 

EM: In addition to your busy schedule as a symphony conductor, you also have appeared with the Royal Swedish Opera. Do you plan to add more opera to your future conducting activities? 

LB: Yes, definitely. While I was in Zürich, I was very busy so there wasn't any time for a full opera production. Starting this year, we did Rigoletto, which I enjoyed immensely. We had a great cast and a great time working with the orchestra. Of course, some opera productions take more time. This took almost 3 months. I started mid-October and the last performance was the beginning of January. I went straight from there to the Staatskapelle Dresden. It takes time but I love to do it! We're trying to plan more opera productions in the future. 

EM: You frequently program works by 20th century composers, and recently have performed works by contemporary composers Rands, Salonen and Saariaho. How important is it for today’s conductors to program 21st century works for today’s audiences? 

LB: For me, it's very important. This comes from my training at the Paris Conservatory, where we were working directly with the composing class. I got used to sight reading new scores and very often attended rehearsals at the Ensemble InterContemporain. Again, the influence I got from Boulez and Esa Pekka Salonen and Péter Eötvös has been very important for me. I always love performing new pieces. I conducted the world premiere of Esa-Pekka Salonen's Karawane for choir and orchestra, and also recently premiered a piece by Péter Eötvös in Dresden, Bernard Rands' English Horn concerto. Coming up I have the Saariaho Harp Concerto with Xavier de Maistre in Norway. It's always a great joy to not only conduct contemporary music, but to also talk with the composers about their music and gain a deep understanding of their piece. 

EM: That bodes well for the future, Maestro. Thank you so much for your insights. 

Lionel Bringuier’s LA Philharmonic Ravel-Gershwin concerts run from Mar. 28-31



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Photo credits: Simon Pauly 
Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com