Thursday, October 31, 2019

The “Archduke” And Friends At The SBCMS

Composer and dedicatee of the "Archduke" Piano Trio.
left: Beethoven in 1815, painted by Joseph Willibrord Mähler;
right: Archduke Rudolf of Austria: portrait by Johann Baptist von Lampi the Elder.


Hollywood Piano Trio, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

For the second time running, circumstances sent us to the SBCMS’s Los Angeles Harbor College performance on Friday night rather than the Sunday afternoon alternative in the Pacific Unitarian Church on top of the Palos Verdes Peninsula; and for all that venue’s light, spacious interior, not to mention the terrific views from the terrace outside, there’s no doubt that the College recital hall’s broad, shallow, tiered space, comfortable seating, and warm, analytical acoustic afford the more involving musical experience.

Roberto Cani.
From a fairly close seat, that acoustic served to differentiate rather than blend the timbres of the Hollywood Trio’s instruments, violinist Roberto Cani’s fluid, husky, rather veiled tone very distinct from the rock-solid underpinning of Eric Byers’ cello, and both set off by the crisp rhythmic impetus of the College Steinway under the fingers of pianist Inna Faliks.

All this gave Haydn’s Piano Trio No.39 in G major Hob.XV:25, composed in 1795, a somewhat different character from another performance given nearby earlier this year (reviewed here). Rather than the warm amiability evinced then, the Hollywood Trio launched the theme-and-variations first movement with an eager pointedness that rather belied its Andante marking. By contrast, they phrased the Poco adagio, cantabile, second movement with an amplitude that definitely glanced towards the romanticism to come in the next century’s early decades.

Eric Byers.
The finale of this oft-nicknamed “Gypsy” trio is headed Rondo a l’Ongarese. Kudos to program-note writer Boglárka Kiss, D.M.A., for taking the trouble to point out some differences between “gypsy” and “Hungarian” folk music, though I confess to not clearly discerning which of them Haydn echoes. The Hollywood Trio’s performance was close to the Presto marking, but in its sharp assertiveness lacked some of the rollicking foot-stamping quality which the gypsy/Hungarian interludes that punctuate repetitions of the rondo theme can comfortably take.

Inna Faliks.
Nonetheless, the inexhaustible inventiveness of Haydn in late middle age was demonstrated thoroughly—so now it would be good to hear some of his many other and less-often-played piano trios. The Russian Anton Arensky (1861-1906), by contrast, left only two works in the genre, and again, it would be nice if his rather Brahmsian Piano Trio No. 2, Op. 73 in F minor got as many live airings as the distinctively Tchaikovskian Piano Trio No. 1, Op. 32 in D minor from 1894, with which the Hollywood Piano Trio continued their recital.

Admittedly though, the latter does open with a killer main theme on the violin, which through its lengthy course swings between optimism and lament, aspiration and potential tragic fall. Mr. Cani expressed this with a restraint, even a passing hesitancy, that was strikingly contrasted when the cello took over, with Mr. Byers’ instrument projecting the melody with a full-throated, indeed Slavic, growl. Observation of the exposition repeat underlined the scale of this opening Allegro moderato movement, and the performance continued to gain breadth with a quite easy-going tempo for the Scherzo’s nominal Allegro molto.

Anton Arensky:
a portrait from 1901.
From sublime dueting between the muted cello and violin, the fulsomely romantic Elegia slow movement proceeded like the evocation of some moonlit lake, while the concisely tensile Finale, kicked off by an imperiously arresting handling of the opening flourish by Ms. Faliks, was duly navigated back in masterful fashion through echoes of its predecessor to the final haunting reappearance of the first movement main theme, before it—and the whole work—ground down to its emphatic but unsparingly bleak conclusion.

Beethoven’s Piano Trio No. 7 in B-flat major, Op. 97, composed in 1811 and dedicated, like several others of his works, to the Hapsburg scion Archduke Rudolf of Austria, was the last and largest of his contributions to the genre. It opens with one of his most spacious and memorable first subjects, but this the Hollywoods took with a welcome alacrity, more plain Allegro than Allegro moderato as marked, as if eager to get started on the long journey.

To my ears they seemed a little less emphatic in the (welcome) exposition repeat, as if settling in on that journey, and then the separating clarity of the LAHC hall acoustic and the improvisatory freedom of the Trio's playing made particularly relishable the harmonic and melodic twists and turns that Beethoven executes in the first movement’s development section—which seem at the same time exhilaratingly unexpected and immediately inevitable.

The Scherzo presents a conundrum for performers. Unlike most such movements in Classical sonata-form works, but in common with some of Beethoven’s other expansive “middle-period” pieces, it eschews the pattern of pairs of brief repeated sections for the Scherzo and Trio, followed by a da capo without repeats of the Scherzo. Instead a much more elaborate Scherzo, without literal repeats, leads straight into—at the same Allegro tempo—a long and weirdly subterranean Trio that slithers up from the depths in close-packed semi-tone steps before breaking out into a high-stepping march-like section.

The conundrum is that Beethoven marks one huge repeat of all this to be taken before moving into a coda, so that the whole movement has an ABABA+coda shape. This is rarely done as it extends the Scherzo to a length closely matching those of both its imposing predecessor and the radiant Andante cantabile ma però con moto that follows, and unsurprisingly the Hollywood Trio did not observe it. Given their fairly spacious account of the Scherzo, so that even without the big repeat it ran to eight minutes, this was probably the right decision, but… one day?

I felt that their performance of the great slow movement lacked a little of the hymn-like inevitability and “inward” quality that some of the finest accounts of it possess, but when it moved into the Finale—via a stroke of tonal side-stepping genius very similar to that with which Beethoven links the slow movement and finale of his “Emperor” concerto—their combination of powerful emphasis and observation of the Allegro moderato marking enabled a truly exultant acceleration into the final Presto that set the seal on a fine performance of one of the greatest piano trios in the repertoire. 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Music Department Recital Hall, Los Angeles Harbor College, Wilmington, 8pm, Friday, October 25, 2019.
Photos: Beethoven: Wikimedia Commons; Archduke Rudolf: Wikimedia Commons; Roberto Cani: L’Italo-Americano; Eric Byers: Henceforth Records; Inna Faliks: Lisa-Marie Mazzucco; Arensky: Music Toronto.

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Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Bach to Weill via Poland… More Sharing at The Interludes

Lukasz Yoder and Roksana Zeinapur.


Lukasz Yoder and Roksana Zeinapur: “The Interludes”, First Lutheran Church, Torrance
David J Brown

This wide-ranging recital in Classical Crossroads' Saturday afternoon "The Interludes" series was shared between the young Polish pianist Lukasz Yoder and the Russian-Azerbaijani soprano Roksana Zeinapur... and raised the sometime conundrum of appropriateness of venue. I wonder if I’m not alone in finding a coolly modern and spacious church like First Lutheran rather incongruous a setting for such hothouse mini-sagas in song—of love ironic, unrequited, or doomed—as they presented in the latter half of the program.

Erik Satie, around the
time he wrote Je te veux.
That aside, this was a well-planned and executed sequence. The bitter-sweet lilt of Erik Satie’s Je te veux (I Want You), probably composed in 1897, immediately demonstrated both the bell-like purity of Ms. Zeinapur’s voice and Mr. Yoder’s discreet exactitude as an accompanist. Then the darker, arguably premonitory, harmonies of Poulenc’s Violon, the fifth in his 1939 song-cycle Fiançailles pour rire (Betrothal for Laughs) FP 101, revealed the power and edge also at her command.

Kurt Weill in 1932.
Three songs by Kurt Weill expanded the emotional, stylistic, and geographical range beyond the fin-de-siècle and pre-War Paris. The low-lying opening of Je ne t'aime pas (I Don't Love You)—a late (1934) echo of Weimar Republic decadence—showed Ms. Zeinapur able to dip easily into the mezzo range, while its intense later stages brought a piercing strength but also a hint of brittleness, the brief spoken asides adding a dimension of vulnerability.

Youkali, adapted from the purely instrumental Tango habanera in Weill’s musical Marie Galante, also written in 1934, added a tang of Spanish/Cuban exoticism, while Speak Low, from the Broadway musical comedy One Touch of Venus (1943), was, indeed, pure Broadway.

So might one imagine the familiar These Foolish Things (Remind Me of You) to be, but in fact its music and lyrics were by two stalwarts of 1930s' English musical theatre, respectively Jack Strachey and Eric Maschwitz. Even in the large impersonal spaces of the church, the duo managed to achieve the confiding, intimate manner the song requires, and then executed a neat 90-degree turn into the rollicking defiance of Ángel Cabral’s La Foule (The Crowd), composed in 1936 but made famous by Edith Piaf over 20 years later.

Edith Piaf in 1948.
Finally, in what was definitely an encore item despite being listed on the program sheet, Piaf came front and center in La Vie en rose, for which she wrote the lyrics to music by Louiguy (Louis Guglielmi). For this Ms. Zeinapur wisely made no attempt to imitate the inimitable, but brought her own power and vibrancy to that signature song.

Mr. Yoder had the stage to himself in the first half of the recital, opening with one of the most expansive—and familiar—of all of Bach’s “48”, the Prelude and Fugue No. 8 in E-flat minor BWV 853, from Book 1 of Das Wohltemperierte Clavier. Opening the lengthy Prelude softly, but thankfully keeping it moving, his sensitivity with its discreet rubato seemed a little undermined by some rhythmic and chording insecurity—unfamiliarity with the instrument and the venue, perhaps? However, allowing barely a pause between it and the Fugue, coupled with his spacious tempo for the latter, ensured that the whole majestic piece came across as a coherent whole.

Then, with probably intentional extreme contrast, he tore into Chopin’s thunderous “Octave” Étude No. 22 in B minor B78, Op. 25 No. 10, as con fuoco as you could wish for, demonstrating a formidable power indeed. Contrasting again was the same composer’s Nocturne No. 5 in F-sharp Major B55, Op. 15 No. 2 where, though Mr. Yoder couldn’t resist some unmarked accelerandi in the central Doppio movimento section, in the closing span particularly his playing was of positively liquid delicacy.

Grazyna Bacewicz.
For his final item(s), he moved from early 19th century Poland to the same country in its post-war Soviet domination. The music of Grazyna Bacewicz (1909-1969) is having something of a moment with, as I write, a two-day festival happening in San Francisco under the auspices of the ever-enterprising Bard College, and an ongoing flood of CD releases including multiple recordings of her many violin works, not least her seven (count ‘em!) violin concertos.

The first movement of her Piano Sonata No. 2 (1953) is dense and gritty, and characterized by extreme contrasts of texture and dynamic. Mr. Yoder gave full measure both to its grinding intensity and sudden moments of withdrawal and stasis. Indeed, my sole reservation was that only this introductory Maestoso-Allegro was programmed. I’m not a fan of extracting single movements from multi-movement works that composers clearly intend to be heard as a whole, and in this instance that view was born out by the choice of encore.

In place of the anticipated Chopin Mazurka, instead Mr. Yoder played this same Bacewicz Piano Sonata No. 2’s even more torrential Toccata finale, and frankly, I would have preferred one or two fewer songs if it had made room for him to play the whole work: the somber processional of its central Largo movement crucially separates, contrasts with, and expands the context for the outer movements. Maybe another time…?


“The Interludes”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 3.00pm, Saturday, October 19, 2019.
Images: Lukasz Yoder: Artist website; Roksana Zeinapur: Artist website; Satie: Wikimedia Commons; Weill: Wikimedia Commons; Edith Piaf: Britannica; Bacewicz: National Digital Archives of Poland.

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Thursday, October 17, 2019

Beethoven, Falla, and Ravel at Rolling Hills

Valeria Morgovskaya (piano) and Ken Aiso (violin), at Rolling Hills United Methodist Church.


Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

I don’t know if including the Sonata Per Piano-Forte con L’Accompagnam’t Del Violono Op. 30 Nr. 3 (cf the surviving manuscript, right, probably a copyist’s score), as the opener to their Sunday afternoon recital at RHUMC, was a deliberate tribute by Ken Aiso and Valeria Morgovskaya to Beethoven in the ongoing 250th anniversary celebration juggernaut, but if so, it was a cannily subtle and intriguing choice.

That way of titling a violin sonata—with the violin secondary to the piano—runs all the way through to Beethoven’s last, written in 1812, but even in Violin Sonata No. 8 in G major, composed some 10 years earlier, the instruments had already achieved parity. Both lead off in unison with an abrupt little inverted arch motif played twice, part-gruff and part-playful, after which Beethoven tosses his genial melodies back and forth between them—in these performers’ hands not a catch being dropped. Repeating the exposition also helped to get those melodies fixed in the mind.

The second movement is headed Tempo di Minuetto, but Beethoven’s careful modifier, ma molto moderato e grazioso, defines this as a slow movement and not a scherzo precursor. Its remarkable evenness of mood could lapse into monotony were not the main melody so insidiously ingratiating, Beethoven artfully tweaking its progress in a quasi-variation manner. Mr. Aiso and Ms. Morgovskaya kept the movement moving and indeed, I felt, could have allowed it to smile a little more without becoming unduly sentimental.

The brief finale is a prime example of the young(ish) Beethoven’s insouciant brilliance and economy, swinging back and forth between uproarious repetitions of its main theme and little spasms of mock anger. Again, Mr. Aiso and Ms. Morgovskaya kept the textures cleanly alive without being unduly helter-skelter.

Manuel de Falla in Paris, c. 1914.
Manuel de Falla’s 1914 Siete Canciones populares Españolas for voice and piano are much recorded, but the Suite Populaire Espagnole that he and the violinist Paul Kochanskí reworked from them in 1926 seems rather less well-known. As the performance of this that was the duo’s next item showed, this is a pity; its movements work equally well on the violin as sung, especially when as characterfully varied as Mr. Aiso played them.

The first song, El paño moruno, retains its location in the violin version, but the second is omitted (one wonders why?) and the remaining five ordered differently. The original fifth song, Nana, comes next, and after the opener’s jaunty brilliance (with pizzicati over the piano introduction immediately demonstrating that the reworking is more extensive than simply transferring the sung line to the violin over the unchanged accompaniment), Mr. Aiso played it with a haunted, almost theremin-like tone.

In succession Canción (VI in the original), Polo (VII), Asturiana (III), and Jota (IV) were variously passionate, glassily ethereal, earthy, muted, wild, strummed… with Ms. Morgovskaya’s piano in each case conjuring within a few measures the differing colors and rhythms of the Spanish regions whence the songs originated. In all, their performance of the Suite Populaire Espagnole broadened their expressive range from that appropriate to Beethoven’s early(ish) sonata, and this expansion reached its zenith in their account of Ravel’s dazzling Tzigane, composed 1922-24.

Maurice Ravel, c. 1925.
This piece is a kind of apotheosis of the idea of “gypsy music”—somewhat as La Valse is of the Viennese waltz—but its success or failure in performance lies wholly with the violinist, who in both the original version with piano and in its later orchestration has the stage to himself for almost half the 10-minute duration.

Mr. Aiso bit decisively into the opening Lento, quasi cadenza, and then from that elemental substratum fully projected the music’s meditations, broodings, and—once joined by the piano—its progressive opening out into a rhythmic, rhapsodic, and ultimately kaleidoscopic wildness.

After this tour de force, acclaimed by the RHUMC audience, it was back to Spain for the encore, though filtered through Ravel's sensibilities in his 1907 Pièce en forme de Habanera (as with the Falla, arranged from a vocal original), the sultriness of whose violin line is underpinned by a persistent octave leap touched in on the piano that, for me, always echoes Bernard Herrmann’s musical embodiment of Hitchcock’s dream-like vision in Vertigo.


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, October 13, 2019, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performers: Linda Pelteson Wehrli; Beethoven manuscript: IMSLP; Falla: Composer website; Ravel: Wikimedia Commons.

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Thursday, October 10, 2019

Sublime Mozart and Brahms End Mount Wilson Season

l-r: Ambroise Aubrun, Virginie d'Avezac, Henry Gronnier, Cécilia Tsan, Pierre Génisson.


Clarinet Quintets: Mount Wilson Observatory

I suppose one could be hyper-picky and say that opting for the Mozart and the Brahms to fill the clarinet quintet recital that brought Mount Wilson Observatory’s third season of Sunday afternoon “Concerts in the Dome” to a close was to choose the most obvious in the genre—the two lushest and lowest-hanging fruit. After all, there are plenty of other clarinet quintets, some of them extremely fine—those by Weber and Bliss, for example, to look no further.

But then, why not go for the “best and brightest”? Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet in A major K. 581 and Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet in B minor Op. 115 are masterpieces of sublimity that resist being easily pigeon-holed, and the performances by the series Artistic Director Cécilia Tsan (cello) and her fellow-French colleagues Pierre Génisson (clarinet), Ambroise Aubrun and Henry Gronnier (violins), and Virginie d’Avezac (viola) were of such insight as to render reductionist labels like “autumnal” or “valedictory” entirely inadequate.

Sometimes the very start of a performance clearly indicates what is to come. So it was with the Mozart. The four strings (with M. Gronnier as 1st violin and M. Aubrun as 2nd) introduced the principal subject with arresting tenderness and unanimity—their tempo on the steady side but well within the bounds of the marked Allegro, given the note-values—and then M. Génisson’s clarinet bubbled up from, and tumbled lightly back into, their texture with seemingly effortless breath control and a perfect matching of the piano dynamic that they had scrupulously observed.

When they came to the exposition repeat (yes, it was there!), the transition was beautifully handled, with a strong sense of finality in the clarinet’s downward plunge, the final three chords well spaced, and the quarter note rest generously observed before the return—which was a vital touch bolder in its expression, as if something had been learned by experience.

Posthumous portrait of Mozart
by Barbara Krafft.
The Larghetto had a nocturnal gravity, from M. Génisson’s initial perfect arch of melody over muted string oscillations that sounded more like a susurration of nature than something man-made, while in the Scherzo, his lead-in to the repeat of Trio II had a wonderfully teasing, hesitant quality, in contrast to the artless directness with which it had been played first time around. Equally imaginative was the strings’ softer revisiting, in their repeat, of Trio I, where the clarinet is silent.

As for the finale, after an impudently buoyant statement of the main theme, the first four variations were variously vigorous, poignant (Ms. d’Avezac’s viola having its—albeit clouded—moment in the sun in Variation 3), and burblingly cheerful, unfolding with airborne spontaneity and a seeming insouciance that masked what must have been meticulous preparation; the ensuing Adagio had all the requisite “in memory of a summer day” feel, but it did not overbalance into a nostalgic wallow as sometimes happens, so that Mozart's final dance to the finish-line didn't feel glib or incongruous.

Splendid though this performance of Mozart’s Clarinet Quintet was, however, the group’s account of the Brahms was arguably even finer. One now sadly departed authority on the composer—the Scot Malcolm MacDonald in his life-and-works volume—expressed some reservations about Brahms’ Clarinet Quintet on account of how a certain lack of textural contrast can easily enable performances to fall into an “over-indulged pathos, dangerously near to sentimentality.” I wish he could have heard this performance. 

Particularly in the first movement, those textures seemed anything but homogeneous, the mood passionately assertive rather than benign. Instrumental colors were boldly delineated, with M. Aubrun, now in the 1st violin seat, seizing the opportunity to make the expressive most of his assumption of Brahms’ memorably sinuous melodic line. Later in the exposition, M. Génisson made something very special of the dolce moment when the clarinet plays isolated dotted notes against a rocking motion in the strings—in his hands like tiny, discrete dabs of color on a pointillist canvas.

Following the exposition repeat (which as with the Mozart was welcome, of course, but completely blew away any chance of these two works squeezing within the nominal hour’s duration for the recital), the development was stormy, and then the recapitulation positively torrential, Brahms in 1891—and within a half-dozen years of the end of his life—not so much engaged in nostalgic reflection as “raging against the dying of the light.” 

Triplex Portrait of Brahms in 1889, two years before he composed the Clarinet Quintet.

The opening span of the Adagio was rapturously beautiful, with M. Génisson’s clarinet keening softly over the muted dolce strings, and when at the start of the second, Più lento, section, he broke away into its elaborate roulades above the strings now imitative, now musing, he didn't over-dramatize the moment, instead allowing the tension to cumulate until his climactic moment sounded like a scream of pain, twisting and turning in the night.

The brief Andantino that Brahms substitutes for the more usual scherzo had a rather business-like air, with the Presto non assai that does duty as a trio (though with no recap of the opening) seething busily along. Then the Con moto finale, comprising a theme, five extensive variations, and a coda, was of such range and coherent power that nothing less than the last movement of the Fourth Symphony came to mind. The “all passion spent” coda, with its mournful recalling of the first movement’s main theme, embodied heart-rending resignation without a scrap of excess sentimentality.

In both works, the group played with a unanimity that sounded as if they had many years of collaborative chamber music performance behind them, rather than being brought together just for this occasion. It’s probably invidious to single anyone out, but on this concert’s evidence, M. Génisson is surely one of the finest clarinetists on the planet. His many passages of rapid articulation and leaps in both works had unfailing smoothness and clarity, more like a natural force than the painstaking work of fingers and embouchure, and evinced total control, whether projecting his tone with supernal intensity or as a beneficent murmur.

I doubt that better performances, particularly of the Brahms, could be heard in any recital hall in the world, however prestigious—not in Vienna, or London, or New York—and here they were enhanced, of course, by the unique combination of plangent grandeur and inner clarity afforded by the 100-inch telescope Dome’s acoustic. As Mount Wilson Trustee Dan Kohne remarked before the start, they were continuing to experiment with layout. Instead of having the performers against the inner edge of the viewing platform as previously, with the audience faced towards the telescope in the center, this time positions were reversed, with the group on a platform against the Dome wall. To me, there wasn’t much in it soundwise, though maybe this arrangement allows for a few more audience seats.

Since the Sunday afternoon “Concerts in the Dome” began in 2017, Cécilia Tsan as Artistic Director has repeatedly set herself high bars to beat in terms of sheer performance quality, and this recital arguably was the most formidable hurdle yet for future events to surpass. We wait with great anticipation to see what her 2020 season brings. 


100-Inch Telescope Dome, Mount Wilson Observatory, Sunday 6 October 2019, 3 p.m. and 5 p.m.
Photos: The performers: Todd Mason; Mozart: Wikimedia Commons; Brahms: 19thcentury photography.

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Tuesday, October 8, 2019

Mendelssohnian Fire on a Friday

Members of The Los Angeles Ensemble: l-r Feng Bian, Joanna Lee, Bingxia Lu.


Los Angeles Ensemble, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

Piano trios are the genre of the season so far in Classical Crossroads’ “First Friday” lunchtime recitals. Last month Tchaikovsky’s sprawling epic in A minor (reviewed here) needed a little surgery to fit into the given timeframe, but the October concert had plenty of space for Mendelssohn’s much more concise Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor Op. 66 MWV Q33, played by The Los Angeles Ensemble. This group frequently performs at South Bay chamber concerts, though on this occasion violinist Joanna Lee and cellist Bingxia Lu were joined for the first time by a new LA Ensemble member, the pianist Feng Bian.

Movements in Mendelssohn’s chamber works are often directed to be performed with great energy and speed, but it’s rare for him to crank it up a further notch and mark one to be played—as he does with this work’s Allegro energico first movement—e con fuoco. Fire is not the first attribute that comes to mind with this composer, so it was salutary to be reminded that on occasion there could be plenty in his belly. Right at the outset Mr. Bian grasped it with both hands, as it were, making his introductory arpeggios quite staccato, a nimbly urgent texture out of which the two strings emerged and surged as one.

Felix Mendelssohn, painted by Eduard Magnus
 in 1846, the year after he completed
Second Piano Trio. 
Ms. Lee and Ms. Lu took the foreboding main theme in a single eloquent sweep, but when they reached the warm major-key second subject their unmarked slowing contrived to give it a greater gravitas than it sometimes has, so that the melody seemed to partake more of the overall serious mood than the somewhat glibly reassuring effect it can have if taken up to speed.

The Ensemble maintained this sense of breadth and weight throughout the movement (allowing one to relish in passing how Mendelssohn varies his scoring in the recapitulation), and built up a terrific head of steam in the coda, crunching out the dissonance with which Mendelssohn masterfully reintroduces his second theme... but in the minor—con fuoco indeed.

The Andante espressivo that follows is in the greatest contrast, with a gently rocking, barcarolle-like quality that the LA Ensemble kept very much moving forward so that it seemed like a relatively brief interlude rather than a full-fledged slow movement. Similarly interlude-like is the Scherzo, which flickered and buzzed immaculately in these players’ hands like a small-scale fugitive from A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Though the Finale is marked Allegro appassionato, it has little of the fire-and-fury that binds the first movement, as though that had got out of the way all the work's real disturbance, leaving only a purposeful energy to chug along. In a usefully specific spoken introduction, Mr. Bian had noted that in this Finale Mendelssohn introduces a Bach chorale, Vor deinen Thron. Even in such a skillful performance, to my ears this veered to the sanctimonious (a reminder of why Mendelssohn was so revered in pious Victorian society), though Mr. Bian hammered out its final grandiose appearance with an urgency that tied it back to that con fuoco opening. 

Piazzolla in 1982, the year he composed Oblivion.
After this intelligently conceived and immaculately played account of the Second Piano Trio, it was encore time. For this, Astor Piazzolla seems be the go-to guy of the moment, and his familiar Oblivion, composed in 1982 for the movie Enrico IV, came across in this arrangement for piano trio (the piece exists in seemingly countless guises) as poised rather than sultry, with Ms. Lu delivering a particularly eloquent and soulful cello solo. 


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, October 4, 2019. Images: The players: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc.; Mendelssohn: Wikimedia Commons; Piazzolla: New York Latin Culture Magazine.

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Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ginger Costa-Jackson, Part 2: Mopping, not Moping

Sunny Martini

INTERVIEW: Ginger Costa-Jackson
McCaw Hall, Seattle


EM: You sang in the 2010 Centennial of Fanciulla at the Met.

GC-J: It was very fun, and funny for me, a 21-year-old Wowkle having a papoose baby on my back. It was the same baby doll they used in the one with Plácido (1991), terribly old, a little on the scary side.

EM: A vintage doll.

GC-J: They had to paint her up and do the hair and everything, so by the time we got to stage it was good looking again. Debbie Voigt has this fantastic, very quick change. I’ll never forget one night her zipper got stuck. The dresser was backstage with her, I’m out front and I know she’s supposed to come out but she hadn’t yet, so I’m still tapping the papoose, trying to look “Doo-da-doo” [Laughs]. Suddenly I hear [makes a “rip” sound]. They had to rip the dress off her. she only missed one little line, but…it’s live theatre, and that wasn’t for the HD but it happens, because you have these very quick changes.

EM: It makes it even more memorable.

GC-J: Exactly.

EM: You’re just back from Spain.

GC-J: Donna Elvira, my first Don Giovanni. Before that, La Belle Hélène in Boston. Before that, San Francisco Symphony, L’enfant et les sortilèges, then I was in Carmen here. So since I was last here I’ve had 3 jobs one right after the other, 1 red eye flight to get to the next rehearsal.

EM: And you’re doing Cherubino.

GC-J: Yes, La Monnaie in Brussels, a Mozart trilogy. They’re doing The Marriage of Figaro, Così fan tutte, Don Giovanni all together. I’ll be performing Cherubino and Dorabella. Each singer has 2 roles. In the opera they’re not singing, they appear as their character. The concept is to marry all of these operas. For example, Donna Anna—I assume, since I haven’t begun rehearsals yet—when she finds her father dead, she says, [Sings] “Io manco, Io moro.” That’s what Fiordiligi and Dorabella say—they split the 2 lines right before their fiancés are going off to war. [Sings] “Bella vita militar.” A lot of ideas. The same composer, Da Ponte’s stories. I think they’re going to weave the stories into a through-line. The performances are back to back, so one night I’ll have to prance around like a boy, then have to shake it off and the next night be a girl [Laughs].

EM: But how wonderful to be steeped in Mozart.

GC-J: I know. It’s funny, I’ll do four months of these three operas. Then I’ll come here and do Musetta in la bohème, then fly to Paris and do Despina, the servant, not Dorabella. Then I can’t say where but I think I’m going to do another Dorabella/ Cherubino. So it will be a year where I’m only doing Mozart, but I love Mozart.

EM: Musetta. Interesting bit of casting. You’re able to cross over from very low to high and in between.

GC-J: I just love a challenge. Maybe I’ve just got gumption. I find it interesting with Musetta [Sings] “Ma ti senti morir,” at the end of the aria, that it’s the same as when Rosina in Barber says, “Se Lindo-o-o-o-ro mio sarà…” So this high B is the same note Rossini singers are constantly going to. I do have those notes on the top. But Musetta is a very sensual woman. When you get to the next act where she’s fighting, she has some very low notes, like, “Ti saluto.” It’s very low. When Mimi is dying, that little prayer, [Sings] “Fate la grazia a questa benedetta…” it has this low feeling. The aria does go high at this one point, but the next two are not high at all. Conchita Supervia, who was a mezzo, one of the original Cenerentolas—

EM: She was in a British film directed by Victor Saville.

GC-J: About Nellie Melba. These singers of the past. I listen to so many of these old recordings, they had the tradition, they could be onstage with people who had been with the source, who had worked with the composer and knew what they wanted. I think every young singer should be listening to these singers. Nowadays you can listen too, but it’s more important to listen to people from the past.

Sunny Martini.
EM: Amazing, to think of being the first to sing Donna Elvira.

GC-J: Fascinating. There’s a recording of Bruna Rasa doing Cavalleria Rusticana with Mascagni—the composer—conducting. I had the opportunity to work on Nixon in China with John Adams. To have the composer be the conductor, you know what he wants [Laughs].

EM: Like The (R)evolution of Steve Jobs with Mason Bates. Is there any role that you’ve done or haven’t done that’s your favorite?

GC-J: It’s like asking you what’s your favorite violin solo. I love everything I get into. Rehearsing Cenerentola has been interesting. I’ve obviously learned the music before coming here. I’ve listened to it a lot. It touches my heart, it speaks to me. Cenerentola and Cherubino have special places musically for me. I love these roles. Of course I love Carmen too. But Cenerentola is interesting because acting her there have been a couple times where I’ve felt like crying. This music makes me emotional. Carmen is fascinating because she’s put a wall up, doesn’t allow people to hurt her. There’s only one point where she opens her heart to Don José and says, [Sings] “Là-bas, là-bas dans la montagne…” If you love me you’re going to take me on your horse and gallop away with me and be the person who maybe can love me. And when he says, [Sings] “No, je ne veux plus t’écouter,” that dream is shut before her eyes. She closes her heart and says, “Fine. I don’t care. Leave. I hate you. Take your crap. ‘Bye.” Boom, it’s done. But Cinderella has such an open heart, she is not a pushover. She’s mopping the stage, but not moping while she’s mopping. Every time her sisters hurt her, she doesn’t sit there and cry. She’s strong, resilient. She thinks, “Well, okay, what am I gonna do. Let me get busy, let me clean.”

EM: That’s an interesting perspective.

GC-J: She does the things she has control of in her environment. But other times—“Must I always be in the cinders, am I always going to be, [Sings] “Sempre fra le cenere, sempre da restar…” Am I always going to be covered in soot and unloved. All she wants is a sense of family, a sense of belonging. I have a moment with Miriam where I say, “Listen to me, sisters.” Miriam goes, [Gasps] “How dare you call us your sisters. Don’t profane to call us that awful name!” It’s hilarious, because obviously she’s my blood sister [Laughs]. And Miriam is such a ham, super funny. This is not a drama. Obviously Cinderella has some drama in her life, there’s abuse happening. But the sisters and father are hilarious, completely funny and out there, which you have to be, otherwise it’s going to be an Oliver Twist story, very sad. This is a comedy and people will laugh. You’re going to feel bad for Cinderella, but you’re going to laugh.

EM: We call it “dramedy.”

GC-J: [Laughs] It is. Miriam has always been the class clown. She’s the baby of the family, the jokester, maybe not so serious or studious. I’m the one who’s, “Hey, we need…” Of course now she’s older and has her own children, so she’s learned how to be responsible.

EM: What a wonderful relationship. You love to see people onstage ham it up in Rossini comedies. Which sister is singing here in Onegin?

GC-J: Marina. She’ll be coming for the Sisters concert. We’re going to do opera, musical theatre, the [Sings] “Sisters, Sisters.”

EM: Like the Three Tenors.

GC-J: Yes, except with shiny dresses [Laughs]. I love being onstage with my sisters. We have a 6th sense about each other, understand each other, love and support each other. I’ve had the opportunity to share the stage with sisters playing my sisters here in Seattle. Last summer I played Musetta to Marina’s Mimi.

EM: The end must have been heart-wrenching.

GC-J: It’s a very different ending. Of course I always cry at the end when Mimi is dying because it’s such a beautifully written scene. But when you see your own sister on her deathbed, the idea of being so close to death…I’m caressing her head, trying to get the hair out of her face, tucking her in. I had to refrain, really push back out of my own imagination because I still have to sing the final prayer. After the prayer the floods can come forth and release and I cry hysterically—as it should be because Mimi was such a good person. I did a Carmen with Miriam where she was my Micaela. That’s a different thing. There’s only one confrontation in Act 3 for them to look at each other. She comes in to save Don José, little knowing he’s the problem. We only ever have glances. I’ll never forget the look she gave me. “You woman who took this man away…I’m a strong girl, I can confront you.” She sees him battering me, pulling my hair. I always find a moment to look over at Micaela and say with my eyes, “Look at what he is.” Everyone always says Carmen has stolen him from Micaela. I say Carmen has saved Micaela. If he’s the kind of man who when he doesn’t get what he wants he hits a woman, he would have hit his own wife. Because Micaela’s a good girl, she might have lived and suppressed her words. Or if not, she would have had to stay married.

Philip Newton
EM: As an artist, do you do what inspires you?

GC-J: Absolutely. It’s like we’re water. You put us in a cup, we form to the cup. You put us in a bowl, we form to the bowl. You look for perfection, truth. It’s this ever-driving force in your life. Our cells and mood and hormones are constantly changing. Every day we feel things differently. One day I might feel a scene sad or happy based on how that day is. As an actress you can’t train your emotions. You have to allow that you’re going to be an open, receptive vessel to whatever emotions want to come in that moment, without judgment. You’re allowed to sing through that emotion for that night. If you don’t, if you think, “Well, that’s not what I should be doing. I should be delivering this sad.” If you try to impose that upon yourself, you will lose the audience, and the scene.

EM: Having played the violin, what kind of music did you like to play best?

GC-J: All the fast bits [Sings]. More like Spanish style, things I can really bite the bow in. I love these Boleros. As opposed to soft. Marina played cello. She liked that low, sad music. She’s doing all this Onegin, Pique Dame, Vissi d’arte. These women who are very sad. I think that’s why I love Rossini so much, it’s very active. There’s something about the pitter patter you can just feel in your tongue. Like the flamenco of Carmen, my castanets. I like to express myself through my body in a way that physicalizes, very rhythmic and dotted. Musetta is that. Full of fire. Miriam wanted to play flute. She has those super extreme highs. So we’re mezzo, spinto soprano and high coloratura. We all have a different sensibility. Raised with the same family we have the same language. What I love about singing with my sister is I know my “Ah” vowel will be the same as hers. If we’re singing in thirds it will create overtones. When you’re with someone different, sometimes they have a different vowel sound. Even that slight difference creates a blend isn’t as beautiful as it can be. As the bottom voice if I hear someone having more of an “Ah” sometimes I’ll try for the sake of the performance to make it a little brighter myself so it can blend. But what’s good with my sisters is we’re going to pronounce the same way. That’s already set.

EM: All in the family.

GC-J: Yes!

EM: Thank you so much, Ginger, for your wonderful insights. I’m delighted.

GC-J: I’m delighted, too!

Philip Newton

Seattle Opera’s Cinderella runs from Oct. 19-Nov.1


Photo credits: Sunny Martini, Philip Newton
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]