Thursday, April 18, 2019

Strauss and Daugherty: Space Odysseys with the PSO


The Return of Zarathustra (artist unknown).

REVIEW

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa
DAVID J BROWN

The April concert in the PSO’s 2018-19 Classical Series was the sort of thing that it does so well: a substantial new commission (audience-friendly but not vapidly so); a well-chosen Classical concerto to contrast and to reassure fainter hearts of the eternal verities; and finally a late-Romantic blockbuster to show off fully the acoustic chops of the marvelous Segerstrom Hall (and, as it was Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra, its organ).

Michael Daugherty.
Michael Daugherty is in the top small handful of most-performed living American composers, and the recipient of numerous commissions. He was Composer-in Residence for the 2010-11 PSO season, and the orchestra had already commissioned three works from him in 2010, 2011 and 2012; now his fourth and latest, To the New World, received its world première at this concert. It commemorates the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing and, like many of his previous pieces, is in three movements though not, again as previously, to any kind of fast-slow-fast template.

Daugherty’s extensive work list shows that he thrives on extra-musical subjects—which he also loves to describe and analyze his responses to—though it’s unfair to characterize these subjects as predominantly “pop” in origin. They are indeed overwhelmingly American, but encompass not only comic-books, popular musics and movies, but also buildings, cities and monuments both man-made and natural, literature, visual art, Presidents and other individuals, mechanization and transport, science, space, and time—plus cross-links between many of these.

Apollo ll
official emblem.
True to form, To the New World was not lacking in copious explanation, with advance PSO blog-posts, detailed program notes, an onstage interview with Alan Chapman in the pre-concert talk and, via the screen above the orchestra, a short pre-recorded video conversation with the evening’s guest conductor, the Canadian Jean-Marie Zeitouni, immediately before he raised his baton.

To the New World's 26 minutes contained a lot to unpack. The first of numerous homages, quotes and references, both musical and non-musical, came at the start of the first movement, “Moonrise,” with the actual tape of President Kennedy’s 1962 “We go to the Moon…” speech. This didn’t quite work; a little too much of it was used, and the 57-year-old news recording wasn’t clear enough to distinguish all the words, despite the Hall’s state-of-the-art sound system. An option for future performances might be an actor speaking, though of course verisimilitude would be lost.

György Ligeti.
NASA’s original count-down with the sound of the mighty Saturn V lifting off followed, and then another homage, musical this time and to a movie—the only appropriate one, given that Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey had premièred just 15 months earlier and was still very much in the public’s eyes and ears. Thus almost the first music to be heard was the brass clusters from Ligeti’s Atmosphères, used over the film’s pre-credits introduction.

Neil Armstrong.
Daugherty’s extensive research found Neil Armstrong to have played euphonium at college, so that instrument had a conspicuous role, intoning a distinctive three-note motif many times, as did a wordless soprano (Elissa Johnston), standing in for the theremin the composer referenced as emblematic of “outer-space music.” And, as Armstrong took a cassette of Dvořák’s “New World” symphony with him, there were the opening brass chords of the Largo, portentous but enigmatically inconclusive away from their original context.


Armstrong steps onto the Moon’s surface, July 20, 1969.

Movement 2, “One Small Step,” began as by now was predictable, with the 11 famous words by Neil Armstrong as he stepped onto the lunar surface, Daugherty then imposing a rhythmic pattern onto them with percussion both tuned and untuned.

So far so fine, but he also added the soprano speaking the words to the rhythm; for me this was faintly risible, and though Ms. Johnston's contribution per se was excellent and should be acknowledged, the gimmicky effect was exacerbated by the live video’s relentless focus on her face. Less amplified, and emanating anonymously from within the orchestral texture, the effect might just work. Add to this lots of busyness that recalled energetic Bernstein more than anything, and the whole was, for me, a long way from evoking that singular moment in human history.

The finale, “Splashdown,” grew from glissandi on timpani and waterphone, then double-bass and 'cello rumbles, up through the orchestra to more sub-Bernstein rhythms and trombone fanfaring, to one of Daugherty’s signature Pelion-upon-Ossa climaxes. He is a master orchestrator who draws exciting sounds from all over the orchestra, which the PSO clearly enjoyed playing (all his works I’ve so far heard could reasonably be subtitled “concerto for orchestra” when they aren’t concertos for individual players), but as with others I listened to in preparation for this concert, To the New World has plenty to beguile the ear but little, for this listener, to stimulate the mind or engage the heart.

Juno Pohjonen.
Though my membership of the Mozart-can-do-no-wrong fan club lapses from time to time, it would be idle to deny that his mature piano concertos are an astonishing series of masterpieces, amongst which No. 23 in A major K. 488 is one of the smaller-scaled but also one of the most perfectly proportioned and indeed moving, with its progress from the blithest of openings through increasing shadows in the first movement to the melancholy of the Andante, and then the most airborne and concise of rondo finales. 

M. Zeitouni and a PSO drastically reduced to little more than half string strength plus two horns and handful of woodwind gave the opening Allegro a sort of general-purpose robustness, and when the young Finnish pianist Juho Pohjonen entered he continued with an account that could be deemed admirably straightforward, or less charitably as rather faceless, depending on your view of the concerto. Nonetheless, there was no denying the stillness he conjured in his solo statement of the second subject, nor the keening gravity that the winds brought to their counter-subject in the slow movement. The finale was despatched efficiently but without initially much sense of joy, thought spirits definitely lifted when the home straight was reached.

Bust of Rameau
by Caffieri, 1760.
Mr. Pohjonen unexpectedly returned for a solo encore just as the audience was beginning to shuffle up interval-bound, and this—which I couldn’t get further than identifying as Baroque-but-not-Bach and am grateful to Jean Oelrich of the PSO for subsequently telling me was the Sarabande from Rameau’s Suite in A minor RCT 5—was in some ways more impressive than anything in the Mozart. The trills with which the piece is laden were wonderfully discreet and even in his hands, and on the piano it had a musing delicacy quite absent from the harpsichord performances I found on YouTube.


Strauss in 1894, the year he began
sketching Also Sprach Zarathustra.
Despite the enduring glare of extra-terrestrial fame shone by Kubrick upon Richard Strauss’s Also Sprach Zarathustra through the use of its opening over 2001: A Space Odyssey’s credits, its subsequent 30 minutes remain far less well-known than the first minute-and-three-quarters, as M. Zeitouni pointed out in a brief spoken introduction before conducting the complete work.

He concisely sketched in the relationship between the tone-poem and Nietzsche’s strange philosophical/poetic/dramatic “book for everyone and nobody,” and homed in on how Strauss in his music expressed through the unrelated keys C major and B major the duality of nature and humanity, a duality that never quite comes together. All this augured well for his performance: not to put too fine a point on it, M. Zeitouni and the PSO at super-full strength hit it out of the park. 

The titles of the nine sections into which Strauss divides the score were duly projected on the screen above the orchestra, but paradoxically this underlined how integrated Also Sprach becomes in the hands of a conductor with both the mastery of long-range structural planning and the ability to draw moment-by-moment the utmost in expressive intensity from his players.

Jean-Marie Zeitouni.
After that famous “Sunrise” opening, the next six sections succeed each other rapidly and continuously. Faithful to Strauss’s Sehr langsam tempo, M. Zeitouni made the fugue on solo double-basses and ‘celli that begins the sixth section, Von der Wissenschaft (Of Science and Learning)—which can sound merely gawky in lesser hands—into the deep, still heart of the piece, leading directly into Der Genesende (The Convalescent) and the mighty reiteration of the opening’s fff C major chord on full orchestra and organ which falls at its center, and indeed divides the whole work into two approximately equal halves.

Friedrich Nietzsche.
From here the music once more climbed, again appropriately slowly in M. Zeitouni’s hands, out of the deep pit into which that climax had plunged it, until it arrived at section 8, Das Tanzlied (The Dance Song), where PSO concertmaster Dennis Kim in beguiling form led his multi-subdivided string forces in Strauss (Richard)’s complex swirling homage to and apotheosis of Strauss (Johann)’s Viennese waltz.

This in turn built inexorably until the (really!) deep bell in E tolled the 12 strokes of midnight in the Nachtwandlerlied (Song of the Night Wanderer). The enigmatic, indeterminate end, with high piccolos, flutes and violins repeating their B major while far beneath ‘cellos and basses pluck repeated C's, was as finely drawn and suspended in their eternal “n’er the twain shall meet” as could be imagined.

---ooo---

Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday, April 11, 2018, 8 p.m.
Images: Zarathustra: Penguin Random House Publishing LLC; Apollo 11 emblem, Neil Armstrong, Armstrong steps onto the Moon: NASA; Michael Daugherty: Wikimedia Commons; Ligeti: Discogs; Juno Pohjonen: Opera Musica; Rameau: Wikimedia Commons; Strauss: Wikimedia Commons; Jean-Marie Zeitouni: Conductor website, Nietszche: SciHi Blog.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Love and Death in Venice, Via Long Beach


Piazzetta and Riva degli Schiavoni, Venice, by Canaletto.

REVIEW

Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, Long Beach
JIM RUGGIRELLO

Gabrieli's tomb, Santo Stefano, Venice.
Venice, La Serenissima, was an important center of arts and culture in the Baroque era. Four of the composers who lived and worked there in the 17th and 18th centuries inspired a concert titled, with a nod to Thomas Mann, "Love and Death in Venice," put on by Musica Angelica the other night at the Beverly O'Neill Theater, part of the Long Beach Performing Arts Center.

Daniel Taylor.
They opened with a piece by one of the foremost of these composers, Giovanni Gabrieli (c. 1554/1557-1612). His Canzon in echo duodecimi toni à 10 accomodata per concertar con l'organo took advantage, as the title indicates, of the famous echo effects of St. Mark's Cathedral (here, since unlike San Marco the O'Neill unfortunately has no resonance, the echoes were all in the writing and not enhanced by the surroundings), and for this performance we got, instead of "l'organo," a continuo of harpsichord, cello, and violone. The other voci were supplied by six violins and two violas, all standing, and led by concertmaster Cynthia Roberts.

Portrait of Handel by Balthasar
Denner (c.1726-1728).
George Frideric Handel (1685-1759), was of German birth, wrote operas for Venice, but those of his operatic works that were represented on this program were all premiered in London, where he settled permanently in 1712. Canadians Daniel Taylor and Ellen McAteer offered some glorious singing, and both are Baroque specialists, fully versed in the style.

Taylor's countertenor voice is as rich and well-rounded as I've ever heard, while McAteer's lyric soprano is simply gorgeous; Lascia, ch'io pianga, one of the great tunes of all time, from Rinaldo (1711 the first Italian opera to be written for the London stage) was ravishing, and for me the highlight of the program. Taylor's ferocious Domerò la tua fierezza, from Giulio Cesare (1724), with its dramatic shifts in vocal register, was virtuosic.

Ellen McAteer.
Elsewhere, the two combined for a couple of Handelian love duets (the "Love" part of the concert's title - I don't know what happened to "Death"), Scherzando sul tuo volto from the aforementioned Rinaldo and Se'il cor ti perde from Tolomeo (1728), and one by another of those Venetians, Claudio Monteverdi (1567-1643): Pur ti miro, pur ti godo from L'Incoronazione di Poppea (1643). The two voices complemented each other nicely, and blended beautifully. At the end of the evening the appreciative audience demanded, and got, an encore, Io t'abbraccio from Handel's Rodelinda (1719).

But first, more Gabrieli. The Canzon Seconda a Quattro involved two violins and viola in addition to the continuo, and a Sonata No. 21 Con Tre featured three of Musica Angelica's terrific violins: Cynthia Roberts herself, plus Joel Pargman and Janet Worsley Strauss.

Jeremy Joseph.
That continuo, by the way, was an extraordinary presence throughout the evening. Harpsichordist Jeremy Joseph had flown in from Vienna for this concert, while cellist Alexa Haynes-Pilon and violone player Denise Briesé are regular members of the group. All are tops in their respective fields, and provided a solid foundation for the music-making. 

Joseph played two solos, on an instrument that possessed a fuller, prettier sound than is usually encountered. The Toccata Settima by one Michelangelo Rossi (c.1601/1602-1656), who spent most of his career in Rome, showed off some of Joseph's masterful technique, while a Toccata by Viennese court organist Alessandro Poglietti (early 17th©-1683), all flourishes and filigree, showed off even more. 

Caricature of Vivaldi by Ghezzi.
The Venetian composer best known to modern audiences is, of course, Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741). A concerto grosso, the Concerto for Strings in G, RV 151, known as the Concerto alla Rustica, which ended the first half, showed the composer in vigorous good humor, while the violin concerto that began the second half, "La Tempesta di Mare," Op. 8 No. 5, RV 253, bore a striking resemblance, structurally and thematically, to the more famous and equally programmatic The Four Seasons, also from Op. 8. (Maybe Igor Stravinsky's canard about Vivaldi, that instead of writing 400 concertos he wrote one concerto 400 times, isn't such a canard after all.) Cynthia Roberts was the soloist, playing with consummate musicality and technique to burn.

Cynthia Roberts.
So there were three major Venetian composers represented—Gabrieli, Monteverdi, and Vivaldi—and one minor one: Dario Castello (1602-1631). His freeform Sonata Seconda, for violin and harpsichord, gave both Roberts and Joseph yet another, and welcome, opportunity for virtuosic display.

This was a long program, made longer by the usual superfluous welcoming speech from management and lengthy, and not particularly pertinent, introductions to the vocal works by Taylor. But the playing, as is usual from Musica Angelica, was superb, and the music, by composers familiar and unfamiliar, sounded fresh and energetic, was well chosen, varied, and pleasing to aficionados of the early and late Baroque. 

--ooo--

"Love and Death in Venice," Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach, Sunday, March 31, 7:30 p.m.
Images: Venice: Wikimedia Commons; Handel: Wikimedia Commons; Gabrieli: Wikimedia Commons; Vivaldi: Web Gallery of Art; Jeremy Joseph: ClassicSA; Cynthia Roberts: University of North Texas; Daniel Taylor, artist website; Ellen McAteer, artist website

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Friday Pianistic Adventures With Steven Vanhauwaert


Steven Vanhauwaert.

REVIEW

First Fridays at First!—fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance
DAVID J BROWN

The pair of Schumann Noveletten I heard in a previous South Bay recital for me seemed to rather outstay their welcome, but on rehearing the first of them—in fact the Novelette in F Major, Op. 21 No. 1—as the opening item in Steven Vanhauwaert’s fascinating program for the April First Fridays at First!—fff lunchtime concert, I was this time around more struck by the elegance of its structure, both economical and complex, than any sense of over-extendedness.

Schumann in 1839: Lithograph by Josef Kriehuber.
This might well have been due to the clarity Mr. Vanhauwaert brought to that symmetrical, seven-part shape. His playing was bold and clean-cut in the Markirt und kräftig (Emphatic and strong) opening, and then elastically rhapsodic in the “Trio” that follows after 20 measures. The opening returns in shortened form, giving way to a flowing central section that is succeeded once more by the opening, now reduced to a scant four measures. To complete the arch form, back comes the “Trio” (not now labeled as such) and lastly a full restatement of the opening. Not a measure too many.

Messiaen in 1962.
The sound-world of Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992) is most often characterized as an expansive blend of birdsong and ecstatic religiosity, but among other musical preoccupations post-World War 2, he engaged deeply with post-Schoenbergian modernism, and serialism in particular. Mr. Vanhauwaert gave a brief and engaging outline of this “new way of organizing notes”, and proceeded to play Ile de Feu (Isle of Fire) 1, the first of the Quatre Études de rythme, composed in 1949–1950.

In the same introduction he also took in the American composer William Bolcom (b.1938), and explained how his Hymne à ‘l’amour (Hymn to Love), the last and much the longest of the Twelve New Etudes for Piano (1977–1986), (a first set of 12 Etudes had been written in 1959-1966) showed the influence of Messiaen, with whom he studied early at Paris in his career.

Playing the two pieces in close conjunction, as Mr. Vanhauwaert did, beautifully demonstrated both some common characteristics, such as the use of dissonant cluster chords, and also the great differences in mood and effect that can and do exist between such uncompromisingly modern works.

William Bolcom.
His fearless conquest of the Messiaen’s alternation between spasms of fury and islets of glacial calm, as well as the extremes of dynamic and timbre at opposite ends of the keyboard throughout its two excoriating minutes, was strikingly juxtaposed with the seemingly endless and hypnotic repetition in Bolcom's Etude of a soft and narrow-compassed eight-note walking theme (a bit like a slowed-down version of the intro to “The Twilight Zone), punctuated by little jabs and flurries of dissonance.

This was an object lesson in how doors can be opened into such apparently inaccessible music if the player has the technical skill and commitment needed, and here Steven Vanhauwaert's performances drew from the non-specialist and maybe conservative audience a warmer response than one might have dared to hope for.

Portrait photograph of Liszt, 1858,
by Franz Hanfstaengl.
Mr. Vanhauwaert’s final selections, back in familiar, central, 19th century pianistic territory, were both from the endlessly fertile pen of Franz Liszt.

The familiar Mephisto Waltz No. 1 S.515 (I wonder whether he ever plays the other three?) worked its usual seductive magic, while in the Transcendental Etude No.10 in F Minor S.139/10, "Appassionata," his combination of supernally even and clear passagework throughout, a very rhapsodic treatment of the central marcato section that almost came to a halt in places, and finally the pellucid clarity with which he untangled the thorny clusters of right-hand flourishes and left-hand chordal hammerings at the imperious conclusion,  was quite electrifying.

The audience was enraptured, and this listener for one left simply open-mouthed with admiration. 

---ooo---

“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, April 5, 2019.
Images: Steven Vanhauwaert:Artist's website; Schumann: Wikimedia Commons; Messiaen: © T. Gaby, courtesy composer website; Bolcom: Courtesy Primephonic; Liszt: Wikimedia Commons.

Piano Trio Masterpieces at Temple Israel


l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Steven Vanhauwaert, Cécilia Tsan.

REVIEW

“An Afternoon of Chamber Music”, Temple Israel, Long Beach
DAVID J BROWN

This concert was presented by Temple Israel, Long Beach’s oldest synagogue, as “a gift to our community”, and it proved to be a cherishable gift, due to the program-building skill of ‘cellist/organizer Cécilia Tsan, the committed performances by herself and colleagues Ambroise Aubrun (violin) and Steven Vanhauwaert (piano), and not least, the recently renovated venue itself, with the clean, dryish acoustic and welcoming, intimate, but nonetheless lofty and light-filled, space of the sanctuary that housed the performance.

Joseph Haydn by Thomas Hardy (1791).
There were also some assumption-challenging aspects to all three works chosen. By the time Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) reached his mid-60s, he was at the height of his fame with a vast output already behind him—through much of which he had virtually single-handedly taken sonata form from its rudimentary origins to a sophisticated and highly flexible compositional paradigm. So you might expect his Piano Trio in G major Hob.XV:25, composed in 1795 and published as Op. 71 No. 2 (also sometimes designated his Piano Trio No. 39), to reflect this in its structure.

But no. Haydn’s late piano trios, sometimes undervalued compared to his contemporary symphonies and string quartets, include some of his most freshly inventive works; in this example there’s barely a hint of sonata design across its three concise movements and certainly not in the first, an Andante set of seven variations on an amiable theme, which move between major and minor and vary in measure length to maintain variety and interest.

The scholar Charles Rosen regarded these trios as really being solo piano works that employ the violin to reinforce or assume the melodic line and the ‘cello to give additional bass support. It was one of the delights of this performance that the strengths of each player tended to mask this unequal division of responsibility, Mr. Vanhauwaert’s light, bright, and precise handling of the piano part on the Temple Israel’s less than full-size grand being complemented by M. Aubrun’s bold, assertive playing, with a quite small amount of vibrato, and Ms. Tsan’s sonorous underpinning.

Haydn maintains the overall serenity and even pacing of the variations into the warmly beautiful second movement Poco adagio, where some added hush in the first repeats gave what is already dolce cantabile an extra inwardness. All of this made the Rondo all’ Ongarese finale’s outburst of activity even more arresting and joyous. This trio is generally regarded as Haydn’s most popular, due to the Hungarian or, to give its usual nickname, the “Gypsy” element, and the players gave those minor-key episodes between the twinkling main rondo theme the full earthy, foot-stamping treatment, bringing the beaming audience to its feet for the first, and not the last, time. 

Ernest Chausson by P. Frois, c.1885,
Bibliothèque nationale de France.
This irrepressible Classical opener preceded a latish Romantic work that gave the lie to another wrong assumption—that the German/Austrian template for large-scale multi-movement instrumental music was somehow inimical to a truly French musical sensibility. This was anything but true for Ernest Chausson (1855-1899), whose Piano Trio in G minor Op. 3, though composed in 1881 and thus early in his tragically truncated career (he was the only composer of note to meet his end on an out-of-control bicycle), is as architecturally cogent across its half-hour, four-movement span as any comparable work by Schumann or Brahms.

All three players made the most of the long, brooding slow introduction to the expansive first movement, Mr. Vanhauwaert somberly delineating the quiet rising arpeggios that introduce the ‘cello’s début motif, here grindingly sinister in Ms. Tsan’s hands, followed by the strong clean descending line of M. Aubrin’s violin. Then they launched the Animé main part of the movement, alternating between tight urgency and soaring eloquence (the intervals and harmonies in the radiant second subject always bring to my mind Bernard Herrmann’s sumptuous love theme in "Vertigo") before arriving at a truly tempest-tossed sffz final climax.

Though not labeled as such, Chausson’s Vite second movement is the work’s scherzo, alternating and interleaving scampering triplets on the piano with an arching melody on the strings that does intermittent duty as a trio section. The Assez lent slow movement is the emotional heart of the work, and the Temple Israel setting felt very appropriate for Ms. Tsan’s first unfolding of the elegiac main melody, which expands and evolves into an even more passionate version of the first movement’s second theme. 

Here, and in the finale as well, Chausson thus tightens and heightens the work’s overall unity and dramatic intensity by adopting the cyclic form often used by his mentor, César Franck. Initially animated and optimistic, the finale becomes increasingly turbulent as melodic elements from the first movement thrust themselves back in, climbing to a pitch of intensity on both strings, underpinned by fistfuls of hammered piano chords, before collapsing into a short, bleak coda: astonishingly, this trio was Chausson’s first big instrumental work, and this performance wholly caught its power.

Watercolor of Franz Schubert by
Wilhelm August Rieder (1825). 
Only a few years older than Chausson would be in 1881, Franz Schubert reached the final and greatest flowering of his genius in 1827-1828. Some later criticism, however, painted him as being out of his depth when he attempted large-scale sonata structures to match those of Beethoven. There could be few better responses to this canard than the finely shaped account that these performers gave of his Piano Trio No. 1 in B flat, Op. 99 D. 898, when they returned after an interval of generous refreshments laid on by Temple Israel. 

They took the initial Allegro moderato quite speedily, driving the whole first subject complex in a single burst of energy before a dramatic (unmarked) slowing heralded a contrastingly spacious account by the 'cello and then both strings of the second subject, over piano arpeggios as clean as ever in Mr. Vanhauwaert’s hands. Here, and indeed throughout the whole performance, the acoustic somehow emphasized how elaborate and demandingly soloistic Schubert’s writing often is for all three players. 

There was no first movement exposition repeat, and once again a quite fast tempo for the start of the second movement Andante un poco mosso, giving the movement a wistful, strolling ambience, though later with plenty of dynamic light and shade and subtle, easeful use of rubato. The propulsiveness continued in the remaining pair of movements, rounding the whole performance off at an exceptionally tight 36 minutes or so. 

As with all supremely great music, interpretative differences only bring into focus further facets of an inexhaustible whole. While Schubert’s First Piano Trio can easily take a more expansive, searching approach, this deliciously airborne performance, conceived and performed as by three pairs of hands coordinated through a single mind, was perfect in context. 

To conclude, the trio returned for an encore: welcome, though hardly required given the plethora of riches they had already delivered. This was the Andante con moto tranquillo second movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D minor, Op. 49, and their affectionate account of its radiant song, in the Temple Israel’s analytical acoustic, showed how different Mendelssohn’s warm, homogeneous writing for this combination of players is from Schubert’s often challenging exploration of them as individuals.


 ---ooo--- 

An Afternoon of Chamber Music, Temple Israel, Long Beach, April 7, 2019.
Images: The performers: Linda Pelteson Wehrli; Haydn: Wikimedia Commons; Chausson: Wikimedia Commons; Schubert: Wikimedia Commons; Temple Israel: Courtesy Ceilings Plus.

Tuesday, April 2, 2019

The "London Brahms"


REVIEW

Long Beach Camerata Singers, Long Beach
JIM RUGGIRELLO

The title of this column is a trifle misleading; Johannes Brahms never went to London, despite being invited numerous times (reportedly, among other reasons, he didn't want to have to put on a tie). But at the urging of his publisher he did arrange his Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 for piano four-hands, an arrangement which became known as the "London version," and it was that arrangement that the Long Beach Camerata Singers performed at the Beverly O'Neill Theater on a warm Sunday afternoon.

Brahms in 1866.
Well, not quite. Brahms arranged the entire work, including the vocal and choral parts, so that the piece could be enjoyed at home by two reasonably skilled pianists. Constructing such arrangements was a common practice back in the days before recordings, when making music in the home was a popular thing. What the Camerata and other choirs do when they want to perform this version in public is remove the choral lines from the accompaniment. Only a cynic would point out the economy resulting from not hiring an orchestra.

Brahms composed his Requiem in bits and pieces. At the premiere in Vienna, only three of what became ultimately seven movements were performed; at the subsequent Bremen and London performances this was expanded to six, Nos. I-IV and Nos. VI-VII. The last movement to be composed, with its soaring soprano solo and text extolling the virtues of motherhood—possibly inspired by the death of the composer's own mother—was placed fifth, and the complete seven-movement whole was performed for the first time in Leipzig in 1869.

That London performance, which took place in 1871, was in English and utilized 30 singers. The Camerata are 75 members strong, and they sang in the original German with English supertitles. Also, since that Vienna premiere only consisted of three movements, Artistic Director James K. Bass allowed an intermission after Movement III. I had never experienced a performance of the work with a break, but I, as well as the audience, found the respite welcome, and I'm sure the singers, who otherwise had to stand for the whole thing, did so too. 

With the substitution of piano accompaniment for the original orchestra, something is lost, but something else is gained. Brahms' orchestral writing is superb, and the orchestral colors add a dimension to the piece lacking in the monochromatic piano. The sixth movement, with its terrifying vision of the Last Judgement, requires the full orchestra to achieve the requisite fury, and the force of a crescendo in the piano doesn't compare. At the same time, with the piano there is an increase in intimacy and direct expression, and the work takes on an almost chamber music quality. This is especially true with a dry acoustic like that of the O'Neill, which totally lacks resonance.

Image result for james k bass
James K. Bass.
Conductor Bass, who heads the choral program at UCLA, showed an idiosyncratic approach. Tempos were on the whole extremely fast, and there were some tempo variations I had not encountered before. Crisp articulations (the repeated exclamations of "wird weg" at the end of the second movement were like pistol shots) and the clipped ends of phrases prevented the familiar work, which can be a bit of a slog, from becoming ponderous. 

His chorus responded magnificently. I've been writing about the Camerata for close to 20 years now, and they have never sounded better. Formerly a beloved community icon whose performances required a generous spirit to fully enjoy, they have been transformed, first under Jonathan Talberg, then with Robert Istad, and now with Bass in his second year, into a crack professional chorus that needs no such indulgence. Each section sounds rich, full, and beautiful, and they are blended and balanced into the very model of a choral ensemble. Their dynamic range is extraordinary, and in full cry they are absolutely thrilling.

Baritone John Buffett has an attractive, manly baritone and began well. He encountered some trouble with the high notes, where he had to engage a sort of overdrive, and also couldn't quite manage the lows, but in the middle, which is most of the part, he was fine. Oriana Falla is not the angelic type of soprano, a Mathis or Janowitz. Her voice is large, lovely, and vibrant, and she sang her solo with moving conviction.

The pianists did yeoman work in terms both of digital virtuosity and musicality. Na-Young Shin is the Camerata's regular accompanist, while Timothy Durkovic is a familiar figure on the Southern California concert scene.

Image result for george bernard shaw music criticism
Shaw in 1911.
George Bernard Shaw was, famously, not a fan of the Brahms Ein Deutsches Requiem. A critic in his younger days, Shaw thought the work something to be "patiently borne only by a corpse." He also wrote, "There are some experiences in life that should not be demanded twice of any man, and one of them is listening to the Brahms Requiem."

Well, I heard the Long Beach Chorale's performance last year, and now the Camerata's, and seem to have escaped unscathed. Both performances were excellent, if very different—the Chorale's was with orchestra—and the work remains firmly in the standard repertoire, the second most performed choral work after Messiah.

However, I don't feel compelled to hear it again next year.

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Brahms: Ein Deutsches Requiem, Op. 45 (London version)
Long Beach Camerata Singers, Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach, 4:30 p.m., March 31, 2019.
Photos: Brahms: Wikipedia; James K. Bass: University of Miami; George Bernard Shaw: Alvin Langdon Coburn.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Seattle Opera's New General Director: 2 New Operas, Cultural Exchange, and Wagner


Christina Scheppelmann.

INTERVIEW: Christina Scheppelmann, Part 2 

McCaw Hall, Seattle 
ERICA MINER 

EM: I know it’s a bit early, but do you have any thoughts of commissioning a new opera? 

CS: I think it’s too early to ask me that. In general terms, I believe that we have to keep commissioning pieces, small and for the main stage. We have to also repeat pieces, because the second and third repetition is ultimately what will establish a piece as an addition to the repertoire. If we don’t add a few pieces to the repertoire, opera is dead. We have to keep adding. Every opera that today is part of the repertoire at some point was contemporary, brand new, and established itself because if it was successful, it got repeated. We have to find these pieces for the future. That means we will also fail on occasion; there will be pieces that will not become part of the future. I do think that commissioning is important, but it’s as important to do the second or third round of performances or the second or third production of a new piece. All the opera companies, all the colleagues, if we feel responsible for the future of opera, that’s something we need to keep in mind. 

EM: Luckily we have a number of talented composers and librettists who are doing one new commission after another. 

CS: And if one out of 50 becomes repertoire, that would be fantastic, because if you really dig in the history books of opera, there are so many more operas than the ones we have now in the repertoire. Countless operas have been commissioned, produced, disappeared. Today it’s much more expensive to produce. Cost structure is different, salaries are different, wages. And that’s good, because there were times when musicians and singers got paid nothing. But the reality is consequently that being the most complex art form of all, it has a certain cost. So we have to take the risk and be adventurous and keep commissioning even if we do it on a smaller scale. By commissioning a small piece you can detect the talent of a composer and a librettist and maybe go to the next step, commission a bigger piece. Commissioning comes in many shapes and variations, can be small and can be bigger. You don’t have to always go instantly for the big stage. Composers also work their way up. It’s not that easy to write a full-length opera. 

EM: Or a libretto. 

CS: Or a libretto. Also, full-length today means something else than at another time. Full-length cannot be anymore 3 ½ hours. For a new piece people just don’t sit through it. 

EM: For instance the Steve Jobs opera, which I saw at Santa Fe and again here. it was only about 90 minutes. And audiences were tremendously excited about it. I’m hoping that bodes well for the future. 

CS: I hope so, too. I really think if you find the right stories, production teams and composer and librettist teams, if we can connect somehow with the audiences and make it exciting. We’ll see. We have to keep trying. 

EM: I totally agree. New topic: can you describe the difference between producing opera in the west and in a place like Oman?

CS: We don’t produce opera in Oman. It’s not an opera house, it’s a performing arts center. Everything was invited. 30% of the programming was stars of the Arab countries, artists of their culture—huge stars. 

EM: We don’t hear of them over here. 

CS: Of course not. The truth is we don’t care. As much as for them Beethoven might be a chocolate, you wouldn’t know about their stars because we don’t pay attention. There is the cultural issue, we always think we’re the center of the world. But we had world music and jazz, we did 2 to 3 ballets, 5 to 6 operas. I brought Vienna State Opera, San Carlo from Naples, Bavarian State Opera. Also operetta because I thought it was important to give the range of what performing arts have to offer. I also brought a company from Budapest—ultimately it’s a very Austro-Hungarian art form—and My Fair Lady from Opera Cologne. I wanted Omanis to see the musical the way it was written, produced by an opera company, and not the reduced version—not 3 choristers and amplified, but full orchestra, chorus, opera singers, ballet. It was really great. So it’s mixed programming there. Arabic shows were produced from Arabic companies. The company Caracalla in Lebanon, which does dance and music events, the Rahman Brothers who do shows in the Arab style of music. 

EM: It sounds fascinating. 

CS: It was. Our culture is not the center of the world in other places, nor the best type of cultural music there is. It’s not about cultural colonialism, it’s about cultural exchange. Every culture has different taste, different history, different trajectory. It’s the differences that one should want to get to know. The Royal Opera House Muscat, the philosophy, the Sultan’s idea behind it, is the cultural exchange. For the Omanis and the expats that live in Oman to get to know the many different musical cultures—dance, opera, ballet, world music, folklore from Central Asia—I brought groups from Iran, the Fajr Music Festival, a lot of the Arabic stars. And of course we had an Arabic advisor for that; I’m not an expert in Arabic music. I learned a lot while I was there. the Omani audience and expats got a wide range of experiences of different musical styles and performing arts. But also all the groups coming to Oman got a taste of Oman, to experience the culture of Oman by visiting and performing there for a few days. The cultural exchange really goes both ways. I also did talks with the audience, had the artists give autographs and talk to the audience. I started using Omanis as supers in some of the opera performances. I loved living there. It was fantastic, an absolute great experience. 

EM: You should write a book about it.

CS: [Laughs] Funny, you’re not the first one telling me that. I visited Iran, Qatar, Emirates, Bahrain, and traveled to various parts of Oman. I can only recommend it. It’s a really fascinating country. 

EM: And you’re bringing all of that experience here. How wonderful for us. 

CS: I try. [Smiles]



EM: I’ve heard from a number of Wagnerian singers growing up in Germany that it’s expected they eventually will sing Wagner. Do you think that’s true? 

CS: I’m not sure it is. Of course, who better than a German singer could actually sing Wagner, you would think. But then you have fantastic singers also in other places. Ben Heppner or Greer Grimsley… 

EM: Christine Goerke. 

CS: Christine Goerke. So many fantastic non-German singers have sung Wagner phenomenally. The greatest Wagner soprano was Birgit Nilsson and she was Swedish. So I think that seems to me a bit exaggerated because there are also German singers that never end up singing Wagner. I do think there is this pressure on a German singer that they should be singing Wagner. As long as it is right for their voices and they go that direction, fantastic, because German is not an easy language. But neither is Russian, and you have many nationalities singing many repertoires. Music is a universal language. If you sing a different language, you have to make the effort to learn it well, to have good diction and know what you’re singing. Russian, Italian, French, whatever. Of course, as a native speaker it is somewhat expected that you sing your native language. French singers will not get around singing French repertoire, Italians of course will sing Italian repertoire. I think it’s great if you are a German singer and it’s right for your voice. Of course the sensitivity for the language is very natural because it’s your language. That is felt sometimes. But Alan Held and Greer Grimsley are fantastic Wotans. Both are so moving and so warm. They sure know exactly what they’re singing even if they’re not German. 

EM: I’ll tell them you said that. They’ll appreciate it. 

CS: Yes! [Laughs]

EM: There’s this perennial debate going on, that even if you could translate the Ring operas efficaciously, it’s the sound of the language in Wagner that cannot be duplicated. 

CS: The composers of any language have written the music to fit the language and the language to fit the music. There’s an extremely strong interrelation between the words and how the music is written for those words, or vice versa. Yes, you can translate it, but it’s not the same, because they’re supposed to work together. When I was in Germany, for example, a lot of Italian repertoire was sung in German until the late 60s, 70s, in smaller houses even late 70s. In Barcelona where I am now, basically everything that wasn’t Italian was still being sung in Italian. They sang Wagner in Italian. 

EM: And the Russian repertoire. 

CS: Russian repertoire, French repertoire. Last time Pearl Fishers was done in Barcelona was in the 60s. We’re doing it now in May, the first time it’s being done in French there, because in the 60s it was still being done in Italian. So Pearl Fishers in French is a debut in Barcelona in 2019. It’s surprising, but on the other hand also understandable. Several decades ago, singers wouldn’t travel all that much. The majority of singers were Italian, so they sang in Italian no matter the repertoire. It changed slowly over the decades as more research was done, more singers came. 

EM: More coaches became available. 

CS: Coaches. Then slowly one went back to singing actually in the original language because more singers were able to and there were more singers around Europe and around the world. 

EM: Like Nicolai Gedda, who could sing in any language. He was amazing. 

CS: Yes. That was great. Gorgeous. 

EM: As you know, people are Wagner-hungry in this town. 

CS: Yes. Actually I am myself. 

EM: I’ve read that you mentioned the possibility of a Lohengrin here sometime in the future. 

CS: We’ll see. Again, I still have to land here, I have to also look at what plans there are and the budgets, how seasons are planned and what the cost structure is here, then see what we can do. Yes, I’d like to do Wagner again but I will not say we’re going to do the Ring cycle every other year. I think that for any major opera company it is obvious and normal to have Wagner as part of the seasons at some point. Even more so in Seattle. But [Laughs] before I make firm commitments I think I’ll be careful. 

EM: I’m not trying to put you on the spot. 

CS: No, I know, don’t worry, I understand. That’s why I’m saying let me analyze—this is only my first visit since I was appointed. My other visit was in January for the interviews. So we’ll see. I’ll be back now in June and July for a week respectively and then slowly will go forward full steam.


EM: I imagine you might have a bit of an adjustment to the climate here. 

CS: For right now, yes, but don’t forget I’m from Hamburg, where the climate is very similar to here. Although I left Hamburg 31 years ago. 

EM: After Barcelona, it will be a big contrast for you.

CS: But I love the seasons, spring, fall is my favorite—the colors, smells. In Oman it was always great and wonderful and hot. There are no seasons in that part of the world. So living in a place that has seasons and a lot of green and forest and trees. It’s nice. 

EM: And endless opportunities for outdoor recreation. I read that you like to kayak. Lake Washington, what more could you ask. 

CS: It’s fantastic. When I lived in D.C. I used to kayak frequently on the Potomac. In Oman I went to the gym, but in Barcelona it’s been so much work the last year, it’s been nearly impossible to find time to exercise. I look forward. As we get older we have to exercise a bit more, but I also have always done sports all my life, so I hope to find the time here. 

EM: I hope you'll find time to go out and about. 

CS: I’ll find a niche. I’ll make a niche. 

EM: Christina, this was such a delight. I look forward to seeing you again. 

CS: Oh you will. Thank you so much. 

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Photo credits: Christian Machio 
Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com

Seattle Opera's New General Director: 1 Awaiting Christina Scheppelmann


Christina Scheppelmann: "We must take the risk and be adventurous."

INTERVIEW: Christina Scheppelmann, Part One 

McCaw Hall, Seattle 
ERICA MINER 

Christina Scheppelmann’s name is eminently recognizable among opera aficionados worldwide. The Hamburg, Germany, native, currently leading Barcelona’s Gran Teatre del Liceu, has graced opera houses across the continents with her artistic leadership: from San Francisco Opera, where she was recruited as an artistic administrator by celebrated opera icon Lotfi Mansouri; to Washington National Opera where, as Director of Artistic Operations, she received the imprimatur from highly respected Artistic Director Francesca Zambello; to the Persian Gulf, where she was the first Director General of the Royal Opera House Muscat in Oman. 

As of August 2019, Seattle Opera will bid a warm and enthusiastic welcome to Scheppelmann as the first woman General Director in the company’s history, one of only two women in such positions nationwide, replacing present General Director Aidan Lang, who will then helm Welsh National Opera. Scheppelmann shared some of her insights and her sharp intelligence with me during her recent visit to our city. 

Erica Miner: Welcome to Seattle! I’m so excited to talk to you. We are positively thrilled to have our first woman general director at Seattle Opera. The excitement over your coming here is vibrating throughout the city. 

Christina Scheppelmann: Do you know the pressure that puts on me? [Laughs] Kristina (Murti, Director of Marketing and Communications) told me about the reaction, which was positive, great for the Opera of course, but also I have to say the amount of emails and messages I got was unexpected. Between WhatsApp, SMS and emails, I got over 300 messages. It was a bit overwhelming. But it’s great, I appreciate that but you go, “Ouf , that’s a lot of pressure on you.” [Laughs] But I’m glad people are happy. 

EM: We’re thrilled. 

CS: Thank you. 

EM: You grew up in Hamburg and started performing at an early age in the Hamburg State Opera’s children’s choir. Then you got your degree in banking. What made you shift gears from that banking into arts management? 

CS: It’s not shifting gears, because there is no way you come out of school and say I want to be an agent or arts administrator. There’s no absolute direct connection there. Those years also, cultural management didn’t exist yet as a course. I was already working at the agency in Milan when the conservatory in Hamburg did the first cultural management course. At the time I asked, and they said, “If you’re already working in an agency and have a degree in banking, you don’t need that.” Aside from that I went to a music high school and played the violin, I was singing not only in the children’s chorus but also later in the symphonic chorus in Milan. I sang for years in the chamber chorus. But I have no regrets about the banking. It’s an interesting background. Ultimately, as an arts administrator, also as an agent, you have to juggle numbers and understand what numbers are so there’s no damage in that. 

EM: Absolutely. 

CS: And I found it interesting. It’s not something I wanted to do all my life, and after a year I thought, “I really don’t want to this forever.” But I finished the 2-year term I had to do to get the diploma, and it was interesting. I learned a lot that meanwhile I forgot, but there’s a lot of reality check and information and concepts that I understood thanks to that. 

EM: You’ve been called a “champion of young artists.” Do you plan to implement a young artists program here, for composers and librettists, perhaps with singers? 

CS: It’s a little bit early to ask me that, because I have to understand the ins and outs of the functioning of the company, also the financial aspects. In an ideal world I would like something that helps the development—that helps young artists become young professionals. I have to still see how this is possible here. But I very much think that American Opera Initiative that I created in Washington I did something similar. I think it’s something very important for the art form because we have to stimulate composers and librettists to write for the voice and for instruments, and write stories that somehow are worthwhile telling in music. If we don’t stimulate that, we don’t have future for the opera. There’s nothing there. if there are not good composers that dedicate the time to tell stories for music and voice, then opera is dead. That’s what opera is— telling stories with voice and music and instruments of all types. It has changed, how we tell those stories, but I think we need to keep stimulating that. I also believe we have to give young people opportunities. There have to be platforms to give the young composers, librettists, singers or directors opportunities. The new building here in Seattle is a fantastic opportunity. 

EM: It certainly is. It’s such an incredible “coming together”—new Seattle Opera Center, new general director. What are the chances of those two things happening simultaneously? It’s just amazing for us. That’s one of the reasons there’s so much excitement here.

Seattle Opera Center; Photo: Sean Airhart.
CS: We have to define well how to use the building, what to do in the hall. But I think there are many opportunities without breaking the bank. That is always a consideration. We have to do something that opens the building to the community, a variety of events that hopefully interest a variety of groups and types of audiences, get other people through the door, depending on the programs, which is different than what you can do in a small auditorium than compared to a big auditorium. The intimacy and vicinity—you’re sitting so close to the artists, that makes for a different connection—I have some ideas but I have to discuss this with the team and all my colleagues, also within the financial possibilities. Maybe we can find a way to support certain projects that are appealing or interesting. 

EM: It is going to be a totally different experience. It’s so new, nobody really knows what the capabilities will be. 

CS: Exactly. 

EM: But that makes it all the more exciting. I’ve talked to a lot of people in the community. Some don’t even know the Center is here yet. That’s how new it is. It’s a question of getting the word out and, as you said, giving programs that will bring people in and excite their interest. 

CS: Absolutely. Also, first people see how much it takes for an opera company as far as space is concerned to get it ultimately onstage. The offices are one thing; the two rehearsal halls are the other part. The wonderful costume shop is big, has a lot of natural light and is a fantastic space. And the auditorium, of course. There are fabulous opportunities there. 

EM: Great facilities they never had before. 

CS: This project—I remember Speight (Jenkins) telling me about it a long time ago as an idea, a thought—that it has become a reality and come to fruition is amazing. 

EM: A great accomplishment for the company. I was interested to learn that you worked with the legendary Lotfi Mansouri at San Francisco Opera. What was that like? 

CS: He was amazing. He had this huge personality and very present always. I think he took a huge chance on me. I was 28 when I became Artistic Administrator at San Francisco Opera, taking over from Sarah Billinghurst. I don’t know what he was thinking. 

EM: He saw a spark in you. 

CS: I guess he must have seen something there. I spent 7 years there, so I guess I did something right over time. But it was fascinating to work with him. He had exuberant enthusiasm for opera. He truly loved it. The music, the performance aspect. He was in a way a showman himself and I really enjoyed working with him. Not an easy man, not an easy boss. Very demanding and complicated also. But he was a great person to work with. 

EM: Larger than life. 

CS: Yes, he was. He could work a room like no one else. He was fabulous. But boy, he was also demanding. And we had great times. For me the best memories when we were sitting in his office with Jake Heggie and Lotfi told Jake he was making this commission for Jake to write Dead Man Walking. To have been in the room when Lotfi told him that, to the opening night and through the whole process was an amazing experience. 

EM: I’ve interviewed Jake a number of times. He’s an amazing person and composer. 

CS: He is. Jake is great.



Next, Christina Scheppelmann, Part 2: On New Operas, Cultural Exchange
...and Wagner 

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Photo credits: Christian Machio; Courtesy of Seattle Opera. 
Erica can be reached at: eminer5472@gmail.com