Wednesday, July 10, 2019

The Dome Rings to “Sounds of the Spheres”

The Great Nebula in Orion, photographed through the 60-inch telescope at Mount Wilson in 1908.


Premieres by Vlasse, Constantino, Babcock, Mason, and McEncroe: Mount Wilson Observatory

Three days after Independence Day and 13 days before the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the third in this year’s series of summer Sunday afternoon concerts in the great dome of the 100-inch telescope at Mount Wilson Observatory was not only buttressed by history but also shadowed by the wagging finger of terrestrial nature, public viewing sessions having been cancelled only two nights before when the dome shook during the second major Ridgecrest earthquake, its epicenter around 100 miles north. 

Thus framed and freighted, in the event all was stability and indeed harmony: this was the first demonstration of what has been pretty clear since these concerts began in 2017, that the resonant acoustic of this unique venue would be as much a gift to voices as it is to instruments. Indeed, it was a double first, as the program consisted entirely of world premieres: six new single-movement vocal works—all slow to medium-paced and located in the generic hinterland bounded by song, scena, and cantata—from five living composers writing specifically for this venue and event, the brainchild of the series’ Artistic Director Cécilia Tsan and L.A.-based French/Greek composer Danaë Vlasse.

Danaë Vlasse introduces the concert; Dan Kohne standing on the left.

As Ms. Tsan was unable to be present, Ms. Vlasse acted as M.C., and after the never-failing engineering-theater thrill of the dome opening and then rotating, she began with a warm tribute to Dan Kohne, Mount Wilson Institute Board of Trustees member and the main mover behind the Observatory’s venture into concertizing. After this, she introduced her own first piece, Neptune

The planet Neptune, photographed
from Voyager 2 during its 1989 flyby.
The restricted performing area would preclude The Planets ever being heard here, but Ms. Vlasse’s 12-minute work, to her own verses, certainly shares the same mystic/mythic space as that eponymous movement from Holst’s mighty orchestral suite. Neptune is scored for two sopranos and harp, specifically “because the voice is the most ancient of instruments and today’s scientific revelations of the cosmos are based on the work established by the ancient Greeks, whose harp (the ‘lyre’) was developed as a mathematical study of string-ratios and acoustic frequencies.” 

Given its Largo marking, and the intricate interweaving and taxing leaps of the two high-lying vocal parts, Neptune demands absolute accuracy of pitch and smoothness of timbre to come off successfully. Hila Plitmann and Sangeeta Kaur, for whom Ms. Vlasse wrote the work, had all this and more, a mutual responsiveness and tenderness of articulation that—with the devoted accompaniment of Marcia Dickstein’s harp, from the most delicate ostinato shimmer to a powerfully strummed simulacrum of thunder—gave notice that the concert was going to be something truly special.

Hila Plitmann (l) and Sangeeta Kaur (r) sing Danaë Vlasse's Neptune, with Marcia Dickstein, harp.

A. E. Housman, 1910.
After this extended first piece came four shorter items, artfully sequenced in terms both of forces required and subject. First was Anthony Constantino’s setting for soprano, violin and harp of Stars, I Have Seen Them Fall, from A. E. Housman’s collection of “More Poems” (1936). To the composer, this poem adumbrates “an introspective, existential examination of futility. A dichotomy exists within this futility; fallen stars do not detract from the beauty of the skies, but likewise, rain does not dilute the salt in the sea. We live consistently within this dichotomy and have no choice but to accept it as it is.” 

Constantino’s brief, concentrated setting opens with a whispered harp tremolo, above which the violin (played here by Reina Inui) and voice at first alternate in freely chromatic lines before coming together against an uprushing harp glissando for a single powerful climax (“It rains into the sea”) that showed Hila Plitmann’s vocal resources could encompass thrilling power as well as refined purity, when needed.

Reina Inui.
The L.A.-based composer Bruce Babcock’s connection with Mount Wilson is positively dynastic. His father was a director of the observatory, while his grandfather worked for founder George Ellery Hale, who on one occasion in 1919 invited some guests to viewing sessions where "a lone musician, carrying and playing upon a small harp […] strolled through each building and out under the quiet pines, and the echoes of his music […] struck deeply into the consciousness of all who heard.” 

Alfred Noyes, 1922.
To the historic night in 1917 of “first light” through the 100-inch telescope, Hale invited the English poet Alfred Noyes. The experience inspired his epic poem Watchers of the Sky, from which Mr. Babcock set the final lines of the Prologue. The text begins “… I sing of those who caught the pure Promethean fire…” but the music, cradled throughout on barcarolle-like repetitions from the harp, eschews incendiary fervor in favor of gentle lyricism. Promethean Fire is scored, like the Constantino, for soprano, violin and harp, and Sangeeta Kaur perfectly projected its aspirational purity, supported as before by Ms. Inui and Ms. Dickstein.

Marcia Dickstein.
The fourth composer to present his own work, Todd Mason, added to this line-up a flute, played by Rachel Mellis, for the setting of his poem Where Our Innocence Once Stood. To Vlasse’s embrace of a single celestial object, Constantino’s philosophical paradox, and Babcock’s celebration of discovery, Mason added an awestruck reaching-out to the illimitable substance and processes of the universe itself, taking in not only its grandeur but also violence in music less anchored to tonality than its predecessors in the recital. Ms. Plitmann once again demonstrated her vocal range and power in a work that I would be particularly glad to hear again.

Mark McEncroe.
The only composer not present was the Australian Mark John McEncroe, whose Into the Realm of Dark Matter gave the vocal and violin soloists a well-earned break (though not the stalwart harpist) and brought in the 14-strong Sterling Ensemble, directed by Michelle Jensen. Danaë Vlasse introduced the work on Mr. McEncroe's behalf:

“… I’m taking artistic license to interpret my impressions and my feelings at the thought of this immense ill-defined mass we call Dark Matter; for me the mere fact of its unknown substance makes it seem quietly dangerous. Dark Matter is constant and utterly enveloping, so I invite the listener to come into a state of trance, filled with a sense of intuition but never truly understanding where the music may go...”

The Sterling Ensemble.

Though the melismatic wordless vocalizing sounded beguilingly celestial in the dome (how the choral masterpieces of the Renaissance would resound here!), any sense of that “quietly dangerous unknown substance” was confined to subtle and, for me, unduly innocuous harmonic shifts, making the music’s progress a little too predictable—the only disappointment on the program.

Shea Welsh.
Early arrivals outside the dome had been treated to choral sounds wafting from the aperture far overhead and drifting like dappled aural sunlight amongst the trees—rehearsals, it turned out, for the finale, Danaë Vlasse’s Rainbow Nebulae. All the forces apart from the flute were mustered for this, with the addition of a guitar played by Shea Welsh. Again setting her own verses, “inspired by the multi-colored beauty of nebulae emerging from the blackness of space,” Ms. Vlasse’s hope that “the music and the poetry convey for you the sense of awe I feel for these massive cosmic nests of life where stars are born” was certainly fulfilled for this listener.

l-r: Michelle Jensen, Bruce Babcock, Sangeeta Kaur, Danaë Vlasse, Todd Mason,
Anthony Constantino.
Danaë Vlasse with singing bowls.
After an introduction of dark, close choral harmonies over an accompaniment—initially on guitar and then joined by the harp—which continued throughout, rhythmically unchanged but in slow flux harmonically, the main body of the piece proceeded to a radiant climax through the repetition and major/minor variations of an immediately memorable main theme shared between the violin and the two vocal soloists—Ms. Plitmann, Ms. Kaur, and Ms. Inui as ever in perfect accord, and with their colleagues. 

In other circumstances, and maybe a less totally committed performance, it might have seemed a little saccharine, but this context and location negated all reservation, leaving the audience hypnotized by its beauty. Rainbow Nebulae was the perfect conclusion… except that it wasn’t, quite. A brief encore, Song of Compassion, written for the same soloists and chorus for inclusion on an upcoming album by Sangeeta Kaur, and with the arresting accompaniment of singing glass bowls manipulated by Danaë Vlasse herself, set the seal on an afternoon of positively “I-was-there” memorability. 


"Sounds of the Spheres", 100-inch telescope dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 7 July 2019, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: Orion Nebula: Nautilus; Neptune: Nasa; Performers and composers: Todd Mason, Morgan Vlasse; A. E. Housman: Wikimedia Commons; Alfred Noyes: National Portrait Gallery; Mark McEncroe: Navona Records.

• With thanks to all the composers for access to their scores, and especially to Danaë Vlasse for enablement.
• The 100-inch telescope dome acoustic can be heard on the live recording of improvised Native American flute music entitled "Under the Stars”, by Joanne Lazzaro.
• Next month (Sunday August 4): one of the greatest of all chamber works, Schubert's String Quintet in C major D.956, played by the Lyris Quartet and Cécilia Tsan.

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Monday, July 8, 2019

Emily Fons Thinks of Opera in New and Different Ways

Dario Acosta

McCaw Hall, Seattle 

Mezzo-soprano Emily Fons’s youth belies the impressive strength and sophistication of her performances. With a lush low range and glowing top range, the Milwaukee native is equally adept in Handel and Mozart as she is in contemporary works of such composers as Jake Heggie and Jennifer Higdon. She has also performed with opera superstar Renee Fleming in Stars of Lyric Opera at Millennium Park. 

On Aug. 10, Emily returns to Seattle Opera after her 2019 debut as Laurene Powell Jobs in the Seattle premiere of Mason Bates and Mark Campbell’s The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs. Fons sings the role of Maddalena in Verdi’s Rigoletto, in a production by Lindy Hume, who made her Seattle Opera debut directing The Wicked Adventures of Count Ory in 2017. 

Erica Miner: Welcome back to Seattle, Emily! I really enjoyed your performance as Laurene Powell Jobs. 

Emily Fons: Oh, thank you. I had a great time. 

EM: What was that experience like for you?

Philip Newton
EF: It wasn’t its premiere, so it was a little different in that respect. But Mason Bates was there and since we had added scenes and music, that feeling of figuring things out for the first time, was really neat. As a musician I love coming to old pieces that I’m unfamiliar with, but it’s so much fun being part of the creative process. The show itself, the set, the way they used those projections, the sounds coming from the pit, too—everything was so unique. It was my first time in Seattle and my first time with the Opera. Such a great group of people in the cast and creatively, our conductor Nicole (Paiement) and director Kevin (Newbury). I thought everyone worked together so well. I really enjoyed telling that story. 

EM: Your role was expanded quite a bit from the Santa Fe production for the Seattle production. 

EF: It was, which was nice, because the scenes actually move so quickly in that show that I can’t even imagine it now without the added material. It seems like everything would have flown by at lightning speed. It was nice to get a little bit more to build my character around.

Jacob Lucas
EM: As a young singer, this is pretty much your century. Do you feel a special affinity for new operas? 

EF: I do, from a couple of perspectives. We in the western musical tradition can fall in love with Mozart and the great composers when we’re first learning our technique and craft. Having done this now for 10 years, those things still have such value. But you want different artistic expression and levels of artistic value. New productions of old pieces can be really great—some great things are being done production-wise——but the older you get the more you want to tell a fresh story from a different viewpoint. New pieces give us that opportunity. It’s difficult sometimes for opera companies to program new things—they’re afraid it won’t sell, or they’re dealing with an aging subscription base and want to bring in younger audiences—but these pieces still feel like risks to them. I would rather sing a ton of new opera and have most of it fail than not do any at all. I’m always happy to take on a new piece. I’ve been lucky the pieces I’ve done. Cold Mountain was a great experience for me. I loved the character (Ruby Thewes). It’s nice to sing in our native language. If you have a really good librettist, singing in English is much better than singing a translation of another language. And to work with living composers and librettists, everybody grows in their craft. It’s only normal that people have varying degrees of success with their first opera—it’s such a composite artform to master all the elements of it. In the creative process the first time around it’s a lot to ask. So the more new opera we can put out there the better new opera will get. A lot of times because of my voice type in older pieces I’m doing pants roles. It’s nice that these new stories are being written for women, and I get to be a woman [Laughs]. 

EM: How would you describe jumping from Bates, Heggie and Higdon to Maddalena in Rigoletto? 

EF: I love that I get to jump around so much. I was just talking to my voice teacher about this. it keeps you having to think in new and different ways about how your technique can best serve you in these different musical styles and characters. One of the great things about singing is that technique is technique. Some people’s voices tend toward one genre. They can perfect that genre, but they also get used to using their voice in one very similar way all the time. I love playing with new styles and colors while trying to constantly improve the ground floor of my singing technique. I just did (Monteverdi’s) Il Coronazione di Poppea, very different from Rigoletto in terms of musical style. A lot of people think of Maddalena as a dark, contralto-y sound, not necessarily something that would typically fall to a singer of my fach [Laughs]. When Seattle asked me, I talked to my agent and voice teacher, and said, “Verdi writes so well for the voice, I don’t think there’s a problem.” I was absolutely ready to jump at the chance. Whether or not you can be heard isn’t always about the color and sound of your voice, it’s really a production thing and how well you’re using your air. And Maddalena’s character is a lot of fun. You get some of the best music in the whole show, the quartet and the storm scene. I loved listening to all the music, learning my part and getting to do something very different. I’m very excited. 

EM: Tell us about Lindy Hume’s very contemporary production. 

EF: It looks so appealing. I love how she stated what her intention was, especially in the current political climate where everybody wants to assume that every director is trying to make a statement about the president. Classic stories are classical stories, you can always draw parallels, but I think it’s really smart for her to go out there and state how the production was conceived. 

EM: How does Maddalena impact the story? 

EF: I was thinking about this, the character that comes in and goes real fast from being flirtatious in the quartet to, “Oh no, we can’t kill him, he loves me and I love him.” It’s real quick evolution [Laughs]. 

EM: Life was short in those days. 

EF: [Laughs] Right. But if she didn’t push so hard to save the Duke, Gilda would not die. So it’s pivotal that her character makes this choice. If she just went along with the plan, everything would have been fine. For a character that comes in so late—I hate to say any role is a thankless role, but her music is very much in the middle of her voice, there’s nothing grand or flashy about it. Then she kind of ruins everything [Laughs]. 

Sophia Brannon
EM: Which makes us pay more attention to her. 

EF: Exactly. I’m really looking forward to making the most of it. There’s so much fun to be had with who she is. From the looks of the production it’s going to have a modern feel and sensibility. Bringing something of my modern self to it and have that work is always enjoyable. And the relationship with Sparafucile is so much fun, too, this brother and sister situation. 

EM: Talk about dysfunctional family. 

EF: Yes [Laughs]. 

EM: Does the production have a specific location? 

EF: I read that Lindy Hume was inspired by Berlusconi when there was all the talk about his sex parties. I think it’s supposed to feel like modern-day Italy. 

EM: In a slightly different direction, you’re also committed to bringing new works to life, such as the Community Song Project. Could you give us some details? 

EF: I’ve worked with a couple of composers. Kathleen McGinther, her River Merchant’s Wife for mezzo-soprano soloist and orchestra. Then James Stevenson. I first sang his Remembering Our Fathers. They’re both wonderful people and eager to write for the voice. It’s hard on both ends to find ways to make these collaborations happen. All of our time is valuable, and money is always an issue. I just can’t say to somebody, “I want to sing some new music, please write some.” [Laughs]. We looked at getting grants to collaborate and have more music from both Kathleen and James, especially art song. At the time a photograph of a Syrian child who had drowned went viral, Jim wanted to comment in some way on the current world state of affairs. He wrote a piece called Sand inspired by that photo and other world happenings. Wanting art to help us get through tough times is really important but it’s also easy to wallow with the overwhelming amounts of bad things happening. So we talked about topics that were relevant but not so tragic. He wrote another piece for me for the Community Song Project where I sent out an online form to schoolteachers asking if they would be willing to ask their class to pick one word—friendship, peace or love—and comment what that word meant to them. Most of the text for that piece Jim drew from what those students had written. Some of them did not speak English as a first language, so it was a really interesting project. I would love to do more things like that in meaningful ways. I’m hoping to visit the school south of me, the Prairie School, and do a residency there in fall. I’m trying to make these connections. As a traveling musician it’s always so hard to find the time and the right way to do it. But we had a really good experience putting Community Song Project together. 

EM: Do you prefer performing opera over concert stage appearances, or do you like both equally? 

EF: That’s a tough call. I love concert work because I get to be onstage with the orchestra. You’re gone for a shorter period of time than with opera and it feels like you’re more of a team instead of the orchestra only coming in the last week, most of them under the stage and you don’t get to see them. I’m very interested in the quality of the production the more opera I do. The Poppea I just did in St. Louis is one of the best things I’ve ever done. The audience responded so well. That kind of experience, whether it’s opera, concert or recital, anything where I feel I’m given the best opportunity to connect with the audience, is the thing I’m happiest doing. With my characters, being as real and specific as possible, not letting any moment get wasted and drawing the audience in. Every project is so different. As long as I’m working with talented people who care, that’s what I want to be doing. 

EM: What’s coming up next after Seattle? 

EF: I’m coming home to Milwaukee, doing a recital here, then I’ll be heading to Atlanta for La Cenerentola

EM: Now there’s a role you can sink your teeth into! Emily, it was a delight to speak with you. 

EF: The same for me. 

EM: Toi, toi for Rigoletto! 

EF: Thank you! 


Photo credits: Dario Acosta, Philip Newton, Jacob Lucas, Sophia Brannon
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]