Sunday, January 26, 2020

Celebrating Clara Schumann's 200th at South Bay

Clara Schumann in 1857, photographed by Franz Hanfstaengl.


The Thies Consort, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church

There’s a considerable group of fine musicians who are siblings or spouses of the acknowledged “great composers.” To mind immediately comes Mendelssohn's sister Fanny, who wrote almost as much music (much of it unpublished) as her older brother, while in the 20th century Alma Mahler’s small but distinguished output of songs bears witness to what she might have gone on to achieve compositionally had her career not become subservient to Gustav’s.

Clara in 1832, aged 13.
But the most significant such figure is surely that of Clara Schumann, linked to not one but two of the all-time “greats”—her husband Robert, and Johannes Brahms, from his first arrival at the Schumann household in September 1853 as a brilliant and aspiring young composer and pianist, to Clara’s death nearly 43 years later.

She was born on 13 September 1819. Piano lessons began when she was only four years old, and under intensive keyboard and other musical tutelage from her father she proved to be a child prodigy. Piano works of hers from age 11 onwards were published and continue to be performed, as well as later songs and short choral pieces. Her total output was relatively small, however, and she ceased original composition altogether after Robert Schumann died in 1856.

Robert Thies.
The South Bay Chamber Music Society’s first concert of 2020 was thus “A Tribute to Clara Schumann on her Bicentenary” that devoted the majority of its program to some of her most enduring works. Robert Thies, however—doubling here as leader of The Thies Consort as well as SBCMS Artistic Director—began the tribute with an introductory talk that concentrated, not so much on Clara’s works per se, as on her career following Robert Schumann’s death.

Alongside her tireless curatorship of his compositional legacy and ongoing support for Brahms’ work—as well as the small matter of raising seven children (an eighth died in infancy)—she embarked on and sustained for decades a career as a renowned touring virtuoso, establishing, as Mr. Thies noted, the practice of playing from memory (and thus necessitating much additional preparation time, down to this day, for recital pianists!). In addition, from 1878 she taught the piano at a conservatory in Frankfurt, thereby influencing playing technique for subsequent generations of pianists.

One of her last works was the Three Romances for Violin and Piano Op. 22, written in 1853, and the concert opened with these, played with warmth and grace by Jessica Guideri and Robert Thies. Though not hugely differentiated in mood and pace, they are melodically and texturally distinct enough—particularly the Leidenschaftlich schnell (Passionately fast) third, with its teeming arpeggiated accompaniment—to make one regret that she never composed a full-scale violin sonata, a reaction confirmed by the next work, her Piano Trio in G minor Op. 17 from 1846, in which Ms. Guideri and Mr. Thies were joined by John Walz, cello.

Notwithstanding the remarkably youthful Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 7, which patrons of the Long Beach Symphony Orchestra will have the not-to-be-missed chance to hear as part of its 2019-2020 season finale on May 30, the Piano Trio is Clara Schumann’s most ambitious, and most successful, large-scale composition.

The Thies Consort: l-r Jessica Guideri, Robert Thies, John Walz.
It follows the familiar four-movement pattern of sonata-design first movement, scherzo-and-trio, slow movement, and fast finale, but without any laboriousness or sense of stretching material to fill a large-scale form. A long-breathed first subject shared between all three instruments, punctuated by a peremptory fortissimo figure, leads to a well-contrasted, rhythmically unpredictable second theme. The exposition is marked to be repeated, and this was blessedly observed in The Thies Consort’s fine performance.

The first movement development immediately embarks on a contrapuntal pile-up of overlapping figures, truly exciting in this performance, before leading back to a full recapitulation. The delightfully tripping Scherzo that follows (also marked tempo di menuetto—Clara hedging her expressive bets?), is in ländler-ish contrast to the serious first movement, and gives way to a wistfully lingering Trio, before the Scherzo’s return.

The Andante third movement is again in ideal contrast, its songful main theme introduced on the piano and then taken up successively by the violin and the cello. Quickly, however, the movement passes into a dramatically dotted central section, equally concise, and then the main theme returns, led this time by the cello.

Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist.
There’s no let-up in grip and memorability in the Allegretto finale, whose muscular main theme adapts well to fugal treatment in the development, and she maintains interest through to the movement’s dramatic end. All-in-all, Clara Schumann’s Piano Trio can hold its head alongside any work in the genre.

After the interval, her range was further demonstrated by six of her lieder, affectionately sung by Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist, who in the absence of printed texts introduced each one before she sang it. Particularly notable were the gentle Liebst du um Schönheit (Do you love beauty?), Op. 12 no. 4; the dramatic Lorelei, where Robert Thies gave full expressive intensity to the driven, Erlkönig-like piano part; and the grandly valedictory Ich stand in dunkeln Träumen (I stood in dark dreams), Op. 13 no. 1.

Jessica Guideri and John Walz rejoined Robert Thies for the final item—not by Clara Schumann, but instead her illustrious mentee Johannes Brahms. This was his Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 101, composed in 1886. From an opening as convulsively triumphant as that of the Third Symphony, the four movements of the Trio are as varied in mood as they are concise. Following the grand-scaled but nonetheless terse first movement, the Presto non assai Scherzo scurries in uneasy spasms. The Andante grazioso slow movement for much of its length keeps the piano and strings separate in their expression of its beauties, after which the Finale returns to shadows and truculence before it gathers itself to an energetic but withal uneasy conclusion.

Brahms and Clara Schumann in their latter years.
The Thies Consort gave the work a splendidly committed and coherent performance, that crowned a memorable concert. Clara Schumann described the Third Piano Trio as “wonderfully gripping… no previous work of Johannes has so completely carried me away. What a work it is, inspired throughout in its passion, its power of thought, its gracefulness, its poetry.” Yes, indeed.


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Pacific Unitarian Church, Montemalaga Drive, Rancho Palos Verdes, 3pm, Sunday, January 19, 2020.
Images: Clara Schumann: (1857) Wikimedia Commons, (1832) Robert-Schumann-Haus; Robert Thies: artist website; Robert Thies Consort: Elaine Lim; Phoebe Jevtovic Rosquist: artist website; Brahms and Clara Schumann: KALW.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

Four Hands Take a Journey Through the Ages

The Vieness Piano Duo in the Mason Home concert-room.


Vieness Piano Duo, Mason Home Concerts

So far as I can remember this was the first domestic house recital I’ve attended in 55 years of concert-going—a terrible omission (and admission!). However, it certainly won’t be the last. There’s no space, nor indeed need, to describe here the way in which LA composer and filmmaker Todd Mason remodeled part of his Mar Vista home into a music-room for an audience of around 50 to enjoy chamber and piano recitals, as in a recent interview with artist and musician Linda Wehrli on her splendid Pastimes for a Lifetime blog page he talks in detail about it. (His project was also the subject of an earlier feature on USC Thornton School of Music’s website.)

What must be said, however, is just how outstandingly successful were the design decisions made by Mr. Mason in collaboration with his architect, acoustician, and contractor. The sound of the Vieness Piano Duo—husband-and-wife team Vijay Venkatesh and Eva Schaumkell—on the carefully chosen Yamaha C7 with German hammers in the “finely tuned room within a room” ranged from crystalline treble to rock-solid but resolutely unboomy bass, and if the necessarily close proximity rather negated the sense of distance in quiet music felt in a concert hall, then fortissimo passages had a visceral power quite beyond normal experience.

Alongside the very considerable musical value, the intimate informality inevitable with the warm and welcoming atmosphere of such a small-scale venue, and Mr. Mason’s lavish hospitality, with hors d’oeuvres before the concert and more substantial hot refreshments after—and all for a suggested donation of $25 per person—made the whole event into a memorable evening.

Dr. Brown-Montesano with
impromptu visual aid.
In her pre-concert talk, Dr. Kristi Brown-Montesano homed in on the vital domestic role in the pre-recordings era of piano four-hands arrangements of orchestral music, as well as briefly surveying the medium’s original repertoire as compared to that for piano duet (i.e. two-piano works)—as well as triumphantly overcoming some visual presentation hiccups!

So to the music itself: the Vieness Piano Duo’s “Journey Through the Ages” began in 1713 with a fluid but non-lingering account of Sheep May Safely Graze from J. S. Bach’s "Hunting" Cantata BWV 208, in a mid-20th century four-hands arrangement by the American composer and pianist Mary Howe (1882-1964); this they followed up with Mozart’s Sonata in C major K. 521 from three-quarters of a century on, the last of the five he wrote for the four-hands medium.

Mozart in 1789: silverpoint
drawing by Doris Stock.
The acoustic clarity made Mozart’s witty interplay between the two pianists—particularly in the Allegro first movement (exposition repeat omitted)—a joy, and it was not surprising to hear Ms. Schaumkell remark in conversation with Mr. Mason later that this of all the works played presented the most challenges. The central Andante was quite fleet, the fastish tempo bringing real urgency to its minor-key central section, while the Allegretto finale, in rondo form, bounded along with ebullient insouciance.

Two Hungarian Dances from Book One of Brahms’ first set, published in 1869, followed—No. 1 in G minor and No. 5 in F-sharp minor—and it was good to be reminded by these joyous performances that piano four-hands was the original form for these much-transcribed works. So far, so stimulating and enjoyable, but no real emotional depths plumbed. With the final work in the first half, however, all that changed.

Schubert's death mask.
It is impossible to exaggerate the scale and significance of Schubert’s achievement in his final years, and of all the masterpieces he produced in what Benjamin Britten called the “richest and most productive 18 months in our music history,” the Fantasia for Piano Four-Hands in F minor, Op. 103, D.940, completed in March 1828, is as profound as any and arguably the most original.

No Schubertian “heavenly lengths” here: the composer packs into the Fantasia's 18 minutes or thereabouts as much variety in texture, pace, and dynamic as a multi-movement work three times the length, but all drawn together by recurrences of the opening theme, a melody so hauntingly unearthly that those recurrences have a tidal inevitability.

The Fantasia is often described as being in four movements, though it is an indivisible whole due to their interconnectedness. In the “first movement” the varied recurrences of that opening theme are repeatedly punctuated by an angrier mood, which entirely takes over when the music cadences into the Largo “second movement”: here the effect of Schubert’s rage, projected by these fine performers at full force in the small concert-room, had a gut-punching ferocity, only to be exceeded by the torrential final pages of the “fourth movement”, which collapse into a coda as uncompromisingly bleak as any in music. The total effect of this great masterpiece was simply to scour the soul.

The Vieness Piano Duo—Vijay Venkatesh and Eva Schaumkell—with Todd Mason.
After a break for recovery, refreshment and conversation, the second half opened with three movements from Samuel Barber’s 1953 Souvenirs Op. 28. This work rivals Stravinsky’s Pulcinella for resourceful recycling, though not in the same order: with Souvenirs the orchestral ballet version came later, as did solo piano and two-piano reworkings. This, for four hands, was the original, and I was only sorry that there wasn’t room for all six movements of the piece.

Samuel Barber.
Barber was as subtle a craftsman as Poulenc, and Souvenirs is a gem of polished wit. Shorn of the high-stepping Waltz and pawky Schottische that precede it, the dreamy Pas de Deux third movement sounded a little unmotivated, and the contrast of its haunting arcs with the scurrying Two-Step that follows was also a loss. The athleticism with which the Vieness Piano Duo imbued the splashily "wrong-note" Hesitation–Tango and Galop that end Souvenirs only made the omission of movements 1, 2, and 4 the more regrettable; another time, perhaps?

Todd Mason’s concerts also form a showcase for his own works; unsurprisingly, his Midnight at Prague Castle, composed last year for the Vieness Duo, was the most recent piece on the program. Its generally slow pace and restrained dynamic, with widely spaced chords covering the keyboard’s full range, all proceeding from and imbued by the opening motif of a falling 5th, conveyed well the sense of the vast and ancient structure, quietly overlooking the city at night.

Prague Castle at night.
Some of it reminded me a little of The Old Castle movement in Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, though not the rapidly ascending and descending runs of 16th notes and 32nd notes in the latter part of the piece, which perhaps reflect the elaborate decoration to parts of the building’s exterior which Mr. Mason noted in his introductory comments.

Finally came two four-hands arrangements that formed a real change of pace—first a relatively restrained version of Gershwin’s The Man I Love from 1924, and then a swirlingly elaborate version by Khatia Buniatishvili of Piazzolla’s 1974 Libertango that seemed to contain far more notes than I had ever heard in the piece before!

With additional improvisations by themselves, the Vieness Duo projected it with as much verve as if they’d only just started to play, rather than being at the end of a long recital… and even then this wasn’t the final note as they returned for a brief encore, a more alert than usual account of the first movement Berceuse (1893) from Gabriel Fauré’s Dolly Suite Op. 56.

Four more concerts remain in the not-to-be-missed 2020 Mason House series—a varied and tempting line-up of genres, periods, and instrumental resources, performed by some of LA’s finest musicians. Full details are at the website.


Mason Home Concert: 3484 Redwood Ave., Mar Vista, 6.00pm, Saturday, January 18, 2020.
Images: The performance: Todd Mason; Mozart: Wikimedia Commons; Schubert: Goethezeitportal; Barber: Music Sales; Prague Castle: Raffael Herrmann.

If you found this review enjoyable, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Friday, January 17, 2020

Schumann, Stravinsky, and Popper on Second Sunday

Sketches by Picasso for the first production of Stravinsky's Pulcinella, the ballet from he drew his Suite Italienne for cello and piano.


Eric Byers and Fabio Bidini, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

Eric Byers.
Though the three pieces that comprise Robert Schumann’s late Fantasiestücke Op. 73, written for cello or clarinet and piano over just two days in February 1849, are perhaps too uniform in mood, as well as being rather formally static, to really add up to a multi-movement cello sonata manqué, that very homogeneity brings its own affecting and memorable quality.

Fabio Bidini.
The first movement opening, marked Zart und mit Ausdruck (tender and expressive), is like eavesdropping on the composer's private musings, musings that are already in progress when they are chanced upon. This “caught on the wing” sense of the music beginning in media res was beautifully captured by cellist Eric Byers and pianist Fabio Bidini—their seemingly effortless spontaneity and unanimity a true instance of the art that conceals art—at the start of their “Second Sundays at Two” recital, the first for 2020 at RHUMC.

Robert Schumann.
After the airy gentleness of the first movement, they were equally successful in capturing both the blithe scherzando-ish quality of the Lebhaft, leich (lively, easy) second movement, and the impulsive energy of the Rasch und mit Feuer (fast and with fire) finale. The overall coherence of their performance was enhanced by careful observation of the attacca with which Schumann links the transitions between the movements.

The central panel of Mr. Byers’ and Sig. Bidini’s tripartite program was Stravinsky’s Suite Italienne. Stravinsky could be a champion recycler, and here he outdid himself. For his 1920 one-act ballet Pulcinella he drew upon music by Pergolesi (1710-1736) and others, and two years later he extracted an eight-movement concert suite from his ballet. In 1925 he returned to this material for a suite for violin and piano, and in 1932-33 did so again for his Suite Italienne, this time in collaboration with the cellist Gregor Piatigorsky.

Igor Stravinsky.
The Introduzione movement always, to my ears, loses some of the orchestral version’s affecting wistfulness when transferred to cello and piano, and on this occasion Mr. Byers and Sig. Bidini delivered a notably sprightly march. The following Serenata melody, however, gains a more sustained elegiac quality when played on a single instrument, and here Mr. Byers was particularly eloquent.

After the witty waywardness of the third movement Aria, the Tarantella was a driven moto perpetuo, the Minuetto a tableau of dissonant frozen courtliness, and the Finale a series of rapid-fire alternations of texture, mood, and playing technique, all brilliantly executed.

David Popper.
The unfamiliar name on the program was that of David Popper (1843-1913), a pedagogic teacher of, performer on, and composer for the cello—that instrument’s contemporary counterpart, perhaps, to Eugene Ysaÿe for the violin.

Mr. Byers and Sig. Bidini ended their recital with Popper’s Fantasy on Little Russian Songs Op. 43, which might be better entitled “Variations on a Little Russian Song”—though perhaps amongst the highly virtuosic treatments of the one obvious tune others might have been hidden. After a rhetorical introduction that incorporates both a fast duple-time gopak-like section and a brief cadenza for cello alone, Popper introduces an eloquent minor-key melody, upon which he builds a succession of 11 variations, highly contrasted in mood and pace, and showcasing a dizzying array of cello playing techniques—all of which Mr. Byers showed himself thoroughly master.

It’s good to see the attention now being given by recording companies to Popper’s four Cello Concertos; the RHUMC audience that so enthusiastically acclaimed Mr. Byers’ and Sig. Bidini’s performance of the Fantasy would doubtless equally enjoy of one of them in concert.

After a brief chat with South Bay chamber music entrepreneur Jim Eninger (standing in for the absent RHUMC Music Director Charles Dickerson), Mr. Byers returned alone for a brief encore, a raptly contemplative account of the Allemande second movement from Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D major for solo cello, BWV 1012. 

Eric Byers, this time accompanied by Kevin Kwan Loucks, will be repeating the Schumann, Stravinsky, and Popper pieces, together with works by Cassadó and Beethoven, in the final concerts of the South Bay Chamber Music Society 2019-2020 season on April 17/19. For more details, and of other chamber music recitals in the area, please go to "Looking Ahead in the South Bay: Part 2" on this blog. 


 Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, January 12, 2020, 2.00 p.m.
Images: Pulcinella: Courtesy City of London Sinfonia; The artists: courtesy Classical Crossroads; Schumann: mfiles; Stravinsky: Wikimedia Commons; Popper: Wikimedia Commons.

If you found this review to be useful, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!

Thursday, January 16, 2020

To Ari Pelto, the Theatre is Intoxicating

Courtesy of the Artist


Civic Theatre, San Diego

Conductor Ari Pelto will make his much-anticipated San Diego Opera debut on Feb. 8, 2020, in their highly imaginative production of Engelbert Humperdinck’s beloved Hansel and Gretel. Described as “highly individual” in his interpretations, Pelto has been much in demand in opera houses and with symphony orchestras throughout the United States, Europe and Japan. 

Appointed assistant conductor of the Spoleto USA Festival at the tender age of 24, Pelto’s subsequent array of professional accomplishments includes a stint as assistant conductor of the Florida West Coast Symphony, guest conducting the Florida Orchestra and leading tours of Western Opera, San Francisco Opera’s prestigious touring company. In 2015 Pelto was appointed Music Director at Opera Colorado, his current home base. 

Erica Miner: Congratulations on your San Diego Opera debut! 

Ari Pelto: Thank you! 

EM: Tell us about your background. Where did you grow up? 

AP: I was born in Hartford, Connecticut, and grew up mainly there. My parents were anthropologists, so I had some stints in other places, including the very north of Finnish Lapland, a reindeer herding community. I lived in Mexico when my parents had a project there, in the countryside, in an Indian village, also in Mexico City. My parents were professors at the University of Connecticut, which is closer to Boston than New York, so my orientation was to Boston once lessons started. Now I’ve lived in New York for 20 years. 

EM: You studied with Imre Pallo, who I worked with at New York City Opera, a wonderful conductor and musician and person. 

AP: Yes, I couldn’t agree more. I love hearing the connection with Imre. I worked a lot at City Opera and knew lots of people who knew him and am happy to know someone who knows and appreciates him. 

EM: He must have been a wonderful teacher. 

AP: He was more than a teacher. He was really my mentor—a great mentor. Conducting is a strange pursuit. It took me a long time to figure out my path. I went from one teacher and country to another. I was in Finland, in Israel, a violinist, trying to find my way and not really knowing how or where to go. When I found Imre at Indiana University it was a major, extremely important moment in my life. Suddenly I had someone who believed in me, who I admired. It was a lucky, fortuitous match. He also was extremely generous. He gave me many opportunities to conduct at Indiana at a time when generally conducting teachers had been very parsimonious with giving out performances [Laughs]. Imre almost always gave me a performance at the end of his run—I was assisting him—and he was also instrumental in getting me to City Opera. He made those connections. 

EM: Teachers and mentors are such a huge part of our lives as musicians. There’s usually one key person on our path who helps pave our way. It sounds like Imre was the one to do that for you. 

AP: I had two of them. The first was my first important violin teacher in Boston, Sophie Vilker, without whom I never would have gotten to Imre. She was instrumental in getting me on the right track before I had a sense of what it took to be a violinist [Laughs]. My Saturday music and Youth Orchestra were in Boston. 

EM: What was your journey to the world of opera?

Tim Matheson
AP: Two things happened almost at the same time. I played in the Spoleto Festival Orchestra, both in Charleston and in Italy, when I was 19. It happened to correspond with a problem I started to have in my hands, psoriatic arthritis, which meant that I lost almost all of my fingernails on my left hand. So I had to stop playing. 

EM: Ouch. 

AP: Besides stiffness in the joints, it’s incredibly uncomfortable and awkward and awful to play without fingernails [Laughs]. Those two things happened almost at the same time. The reason they were significant and connected was, I loved playing in the pit. When I had to stop playing violin, at the time I basically was stopping for about a year, until the medications helped the fingernails to grow back and the swelling in my joints got better. But at 19 or 20 years old the insecurity of not knowing what was going to happen with my hands, I absolutely was unwilling to risk it. I needed to do something else and conducting seemed logical. Years later friends from older times said, “Oh, you were always interested in conducting.” I don’t actually remember that and I’m not sure I totally believe it. I was a totally serious violinist. Nonetheless, conducting did make some sense, having just played in Italy. I always had a love of languages. I lived in Lapland—my father spoke to me in Finnish when I was a kid—and Mexico. So language was already a big interest. Being in the theatre was intoxicating for me, particularly in the pit. To this day it’s my favorite place in the world. When I started to study conducting, I studied symphony et al just as a normal student would, but I did have a special pull toward opera. I didn’t completely quit violin even when I went through that period, and I did go back to Spoleto twice more to play. When I was 24 I auditioned for then Spoleto music director Spiro Angiris as a conductor, saying I no longer was able to play, and that was my transition professionally, my first official job, though I had lots more studies to go before I became anything like a real professional conductor [Laughs]

EM: It must have been exciting to be conducting at Spoleto at such a young age. 

AP: It was. Now when I think back on conducting big rehearsals of Fidelio at 24, I think I didn’t know what I was doing at all [Laughs]. Spoleto was such a rich musical experience generally and yes, for it to become my first professional connection was big. 

EM: You also do symphony and ballet. Is opera at the top for you, or do you love them all equally? 

AP: I love all of them but if I had to choose, if somebody said I could only do one of those three, it would be opera. It is still the one I’m most attached to because of what I’ve described. I love language, and being in the pit, I love drama, collaborating with directors and singers, the enormity of the process and how much there is involved in it. A Brahms symphony is one of the great things you can ever experience, and ballet is wonderful too, but if I had to choose it would be opera. It’s 75% or more of what I do. 

EM: And it is the ultimate combination of all of those things. No other art form like it. 

AP: As a conductor one thing that’s lovely about opera—it’s true in ballet to some degree, maybe slightly less—but you’re rather needed in the opera pit. It’s good to feel useful! 

EM: Playing at the Met, with all the many rehearsals we had, watching the greatest artists at work, I realized opera is the ultimate in almost every way. 

AP: What you’re describing is what it was like in Spoleto, too. For Meistersinger I think we must have had at least 8 orchestra reads and 4 string sectionals. That was incredibly meaningful to piece things together, practically phrase by phrase with singers onstage. One of the things that is central in my life, is advocating for understanding between the pit and the stage. For example, as music director in Denver, I have my own orchestra, do a lot of the casting. I know the chorus very well and the artists who come. Whenever I talk to board members, donors or interested people, I try very hard to get them to understand the connection between what’s happening “up there” onstage and “down there” in the pit. I believe no performance can be transcendent if there’s not a true connection between pit and stage. You can have good performances, hear wonderful things with fabulous singers or a wonderful orchestra or combination of the two. But you can’t have a transcendent experience in the opera house unless the orchestra and stage are connected deeply. Often in other places I’ll have only 2 rehearsals with the orchestra and a sitzprobe to bring it together. It’s barely enough time for stage and pit to get acquainted. That’s the world we live in. With the orchestra I find myself advocating for the singers and trying to get the orchestra to understand what they have to do, and for the singers to try and understand what it’s like for a second violin to have a book of music in front of them with a lot of eighth notes or offbeats and to understand the discrepancy in their experiences. With singers we spend 6 hours a day, talking about every phrase and working on a dramatic understanding, not to mention that many of them may have sung these roles for years. That intimacy with every aspect of their material is so different from somebody coming into the pit and having maybe played something several times, but still with only a skeleton of understanding how to connect everything that’s going on word by word on the stage. Making those two worlds go together as quickly and coherently as possible, is everything.

Tim Matheson
EM: It takes an exceptional conductor to make that connection, especially in Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel, which people tend to underestimate. It’s Wagnerian orchestration, with difficult passages, a lot of notes to play. Though it’s a gorgeous piece. 

AP: It’s juicy and delicious. You can have a great experience just with the orchestration itself. It’s a major symphonic score. And so beautiful. 

EM: And emotionally affecting. But more playable than Wagner. 

AP: The connection with Wagner is interesting. I’ve played Hansel and Gretel a long time ago, at Oberlin. I’ve conducted it twice. When I was first doing it I thought a lot about how much it’s like Wagner and in what ways it’s essentially different. Tonally it’s irresistibly like Wagner—the sound, the texture, clearly connected. But I also feel there’s an extremely important difference. It’s still a children’s story, but where Wagner is epic, Hansel and Gretel is connected to fairy tale, not to the gods, although it has an eternal quality as fairy tales do, the weight of it is essentially different. That’s hard because, as you know from playing it, it feels almost the same as Wagner. You have to sustain the sound, it’s seductive harmonically in all the same ways. Yet I do feel it has to have a lighter touch capture something essential about Humperdinck’s music, the feel of the story itself. 

EM: And vocally it’s completely different. 

AP: Right. You have some singers who could potentially cross over, the father and mother are voices that you could use a Wagnerian singer for. But no, it’s got to be light on some level or it’s not a fairy tale. By light I don’t mean frivolous, but you need to move in a certain way that has a childlike quality. The other thing is that the gestures evoke childhood outsized experiences. For these kids to be frightened in the woods it needs to have a very visceral, clear childlike and therefore also exaggerated sense of the expression of darkness or fear, the Sandman coming and so on.

Emily Cooper
EM: The child’s imagination. 

AP: Yes. And those I think are definitely some essential things different from Wagner. But it’s certainly connected, nonetheless. 

EM: You’ve done much standard repertoire but contemporary as well. For instance, you premiered Lori Laitman’s Scarlet Letter. What was it like, premiering the piece in Colorado and recording it for Naxos? 

AP: It was a very interesting experience. Lori is highly collaborative. It was initially scheduled for 2013. The premiere was put off by about 3 years, for a variety of reasons. Coincidentally it happened to be when I was first coming onboard at Opera Colorado. We reassured people who were afraid it was never going to happen that we were planning to do it for sure. Then it had to be recast. Several of the original cast had taken other gigs. Laura Claycomb had more of a dramatic coloratura, higher than Elizabeth Futral, the original Hester. From the first, she and Lori collaborated a lot. We all did, nearly every day, sometimes moving the range up when warranted. Same with Malcolm MacKenzie, the Chillingworth. That aspect was hugely interesting. Lori was there every day through the whole rehearsal process. We talked a lot about the orchestration. The score has an interesting weight to it. I think she originally conceived it lighter, kind of woodwind heavy but lots of solo lines. The hall in Denver is not small. It felt like it needed more doubling, substance. But at a certain point we had to stop making changes [Laughs]. It was very collaborative, all the way to dress week. 

EM: Reading about it, sounds like everything turned out beautifully. 

AP: We were extremely happy with it. The audience responded well. The recording came out quite good. 

EM: What is coming up for you after San Diego? 

AP: Right now I’m on my way to Chicago to do a concert at the Lyric with their young artists, a potpourri, the end of Rosenkavalier, fountain scene of Pelléas, meant to be a showcase for the Ryan Center. I’m in the pit, each scene is staged. 

EM: That’s wonderful repertoire for young singers. 

AP: Very fun but also kind of difficult to spend 5 minutes on Debussy then change to Donizetti. It has its challenges. Then I go to start rehearsals in San Diego for Hansel. Right after that, Pagliacci in Denver, then Tosca in May. 

EM: Everybody is really looking forward to having you in San Diego, for sure. 

AP: Thanks so much, Erica, for taking the time. I really enjoyed talking to you. It was a lot of fun. 

EM: Likewise. Thank you, Ari! 

San Diego Opera’s Hansel and Gretel runs from Feb. 8 - Feb. 16 at the Civic Theatre.

Tim Matheson

Photo credits: Courtesy of the Artist, Tim Matheson, Emily Cooper
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Folksongs Reimagined for the New Year

Duo Apollon: Aaron Haas and Anastasia Malliaras.


Duo Apollon, First Fridays at First!–fff, First Lutheran Church, Torrance

This review could equally well be entitled “New Sounds for a New Year,” as it would be difficult to imagine timbres fresher or brighter than those of Duo Apollon: soprano Anastasia Malliaras and guitarist Aaron Haas seated side-by-side to deliver 2020’s initial lunchtime First Fridays at First!–fff recital. This was the first voice/guitar concert I’d encountered since starting to review South Bay concerts and additionally, their opening item really was new, being a premiere public performance.

Jordan Nelson.
The composer, Jordan Nelson (whose “day job” is chair of the Department of Music Theory and Ear Training at Colburn Conservatory), gave me some background: “Duo Apollon approached me last spring about writing something specifically for a project of theirs focusing on folk songs. I decided to write my own versions of three different songs all of which are sea shanties: ‘Across the Western Ocean’, ‘Drunken Sailor’, and ‘Shenandoah.’ In ‘Shenandoah’ I wanted to avoid over-complexity in terms of what I asked Aaron to do while Anastasia delivered the well-known tune. Indeed, I decided to keep the tune almost entirely intact. I wanted 'Shenandoah' to have a very clear shape, especially in terms of its sense of growth and climactic arrival.”

Anyone used to beefy, baritonal, backwoodsy performances of this familiar American folksong (anyone else remember Robert Horton's sonorous version of Shenandoah?), would have had quite a shock encountering Mr. Jordan’s setting. Underpinned only by hesitant, isolated notes on the guitar, Ms. Malliaras keened the melody so slowly that its shape was initially masked, the focused purity of her voice giving it a softly mournful, musing quality that carried no hint of the usual heroic striving. Only with the second stanza, ringing out thrillingly, did that “very clear shape” reveal itself.

The freshness of her voice and Mr. Haas’s discreet playing served well the remainder of the “reimagined” folksongs on the program: three each of Greek reworked by a French composer, English by an Englishman, and French refracted through the sensibilities of a Hungarian expatriate living and working in Britain for the latter half of his life.

Benjamin Britten in 1954.
From Ravel’s Cinq mélodies populaires grecques they performed #1, Chanson de la Mariée, #2 La bas, and #5 Tout gai!, in all of which the ostinati and arpeggios of Ravel’s piano writing translated painlessly to the guitar.

The sixth volume of Benjamin Britten’s collected Folksong Arrangements is of English songs arranged for soprano and guitar, so no transcription was needed here. The haunting strains of I will give my love an apple were abruptly shattered by the aggressive strumming and dramatic declamation of The shooting of his Dear, which in turn contrasted with the jaunty Sailor boy.

Mátyás Seiber.
To experience the full expressive range of the now rarely-performed Mátyás Seiber (1905-1960)—generally deemed to qualify as a British composer due to his residence in London from 1935 onwards—try his gauntly imposing, post-war Joyce cantata Ulysses, but for a less forbidding, indeed smiling introduction to his work, you couldn’t do better than his Four French Folk Songs for high voice and guitar. Ms. Malliaras and Mr. Haas performed the lullaby-like #1 Réveillez-vous, the dreamy berceuse of #3 Le rossignol, serenading the eponymous avian (this song not announced on the original program), and finally the brief and dramatic #4 Marguerite, elle est malade.

For me, it somehow didn’t quite fit comfortably—after this international collection of mini-sagas of joy, passion, and loss—to conclude with the familiar pieties of Schubert’s Ave Maria, though I suppose its original status as Ellens Gesang III (Hymne an die Jungfrau) D 839, one of Schubert’s Sieben Gesänge aus Walter Scotts "Fräulein am See" (The Lady of the Lake) Op. 52, puts it within shouting distance of folksong territory.

Manuel de Falla.
Duo Apollon’s real encore returned firmly to ethnic sources transcribed, Spanish this time, with the first of Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas, entitled El paño moruno (The Moorish Cloth). Ms. Malliaras was as much at home with its flamenco passions as with everything else on the program, and Falla’s original piano accompaniment perfectly adapted to Mr. Haas’s guitar.

The whole recital was an ideal aural palette cleanser after the holiday season. Upcoming 2020 concerts in Classical Crossroads' First Fridays at First!–fff and The Interludes series are listed in the feature "Looking Ahead in the South Bay", also on LA Opus.


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, January 3, 2020. Images: The performers: Courtesy Classical Crossroads Inc.; Jordan Nelson: Dale Trumbore; Britten: Yousuf Karsh; Seiber: Zeneakadémie; Falla: Wikimedia Commons.

If you found this review enjoyable, interesting, or informative, please feel free to Buy Me A Coffee!