Saturday, February 15, 2020

Mozart and Bartók Quartets for February’s Second Sunday

The Zelter Quartet: l-r Allan Hon, Nao Kubota, Kevin Tsao, Kyle Gillner.


Zelter Quartet, Second Sundays at Two, Rolling Hills United Methodist Church

If any major work of Mozart should torpedo glib accusations of chocolate boxyness, it’s his String Quartet No. 16 in E-flat major, K. 428, the third of the six “Haydn Quartets” composed between 1782 and 1785, and published that same year as his Op. 10 with a dedication to the older master. While the last of the set, No. 19 in C major K. 465, has acquired the nickname “Dissonance”, it might almost as well be applied to No. 16, where the bare, angular unison opening to the first movement, and the slithering chromaticisms at the start of the second, are only the most obvious marks of an inquietude that pervades the whole work.

The young Zelter Quartet (Kyle Gillner and Kevin Tsao, violins; Nao Kubota, viola; Allan Hon, cello) are all current or past students from USC Thornton School of Music, but their performance of the Mozart at the second “Second Sunday” recital of the year sounded as if they had been playing together for decades, rather than months or years. With their seemingly effortless precision and blend, quite light use of vibrato, and urgent tempi, the work was airborne from start to finish.

Mozart in 1782, painted by Joseph Lange.
After the welcome repeat of the first movement exposition, the development was as tight as a coiled spring, and the drive back into the recapitulation had a kinetic inevitability, though with careful observance of the quarter-measure rests with which Mozart interrupts progress. The “slow” movement isn’t, really, being marked Andante con moto, but in this performance it seemed tugged forward a little too much (exposition repeat again observed).

There was no let-up in the tension in the remaining two movements, so that the whole performance came in at an exceptionally fast 26 minutes; the Zelter did have a habit of clipping phrase-ends, though, which added a touch of what felt like glibness. This is one of those works where Mozart marks both halves of the first and second movements to be repeated, and when observed, this can give the piece additional grandeur and spaciousness without descending into longueurs, as may be heard on this YouTube performance.

The other work was Bartók’s String Quartet No. 2 Op. 17, Sz. 67, BB 75, composed between 1915 and 1917. The Moderato first movement shares some of the haunted, ominous quality of the opera Bluebeard’s Castle, written a few years earlier, and the Zelter Quartet mastered its restless, discursive nature, building to a gripping account of the central climax and then giving full value to the sense of suspended animation in its conclusion, so that it had a kind of broken-backed, inconclusive quality, against which the the second movement reacts violently. 

This is marked Allegro molto capriccioso, and is indeed by turns skittish and driven, with constant changes of dynamic, rhythm, time-signature, and string-playing techniques; Bartók spatters the score with expressive markings to power what sometimes sounds like a caged thing twisting this way and that to escape. The climax is a torrential prestissimo in 6/4 time that slams into the final ff unisons like that cage door being shut.

Bela Bartók.
So far, so extremely impressive, but… and it was a big “but.” Bartók concludes the quartet with a Lento slow movement, and the Zelter Quartet did not play it. There’s no denying that the first two movements alone do form a powerful and seemingly balanced diptych—and the audience duly acclaimed the highly accomplished performance of them that it heard—but the haunted, ambiguous finale entirely subverts their effect, and to omit it subverted equally Bartók’s intentions.

The distinguished musicologist Mosco Carner wrote (Chamber Music, ed. Alec Robertson, Penguin, 1957, p. 232) that “… the Second Quartet is a fully integrated work… so homogeneous, rounded, and poetic in utterance,” while in a more recent radio talk Stephen Johnson remarked that “this quartet required an unusual effort of concentration… [it was] an important stage in Bartók’s self-discovery as a composer,” spelling out the nexus of circumstances, personal, social and political, as well as purely musical, that made the completion of the quartet so protracted and hard-won.

So is the first duty of performers to their audience or to the composer whose work they are performing? It doesn’t have to be either/or, and it’s important not to be too precious about excerpting: of course there’s no reason for players not to, say, extract a single movement from a suite to add variety to a program, or round it off with an attractive encore: it depends on how serious and homogeneous the entire multi-movement work is.

But in this instance it just seemed an act of vandalism to truncate a work as profound, complex, and interconnected as Bartók’s Second String Quartet on the Procrustean bed of the “Second Sunday” series’ running-time. If that had to be done, then why not play a shorter piece instead? Given how technically fine was the Zelter Quartet’s performance of the first two movements, I hope we can hear the whole work from them on another occasion. 


Rolling Hills United Methodist Church, Torrance, Sunday, February 9, 2020, 2.00 p.m.
Images: The performers: Classical Crossroads; Mozart: Wikipedia; Bartók: Britannica.

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Youth is Served in Long Beach

The Viano Quartet: l-r Tate Zawadiuk, Aiden Kane, Lucy Wang, Hao Zhou.


Viano Quartet with Micah Yui, Music Guild Los Angeles, Cal State Long Beach

The Viano Quartet and pianist Micah Yui played a very mainstream program as part of the Music Guild Los Angeles chamber music series the other night at Daniel Recital Hall on the campus of Cal State Long Beach. All three pieces were as standard as standard can be.

Micah Yui.
Eugene Golden, the Guild's executive and artistic director, has been known to program more innovative fare of late, but this was not that; warhorses by Dvořák, Beethoven, and Schumann may not excite new music aficionados, but they are right up his conservative audience's alley. (Speaking of Golden, who usually gives a chatty introduction to these concerts, he was not present. He suffered a bad fall the night before, and will reportedly be okay. In the event, Yui, a teacher at the Colburn School, gave the welcoming remarks.)

And speaking of the Colburn School, that's where the members of the quartet graduated from, and where they are currently in residence.

About the quartet's unusual name, I can do no better than to quote from the concert program: The name "Viano" was created to describe the four individual instruments in a string quartet interacting as one. Each of the four instruments begins with the letter "V," and like a piano, all four string instruments together play both harmony and melody, creating a unified instrument called the "Viano." So there.

Commemorative plaque at
Bily Clocks Museum,
Spillville, Iowa.
This is a young group, even if the music wasn't, and it showed. The four gave Antonín Dvořák's (1841-1904) Quartet in F, Op. 96, "American" (written in 1893 during the composer's sojourn in Spillville, Iowa), which opened the program, a performance that exuded youthful exuberance, and that's not necessarily a good thing. The piece, which a recent survey named as the most popular chamber music composition of all time, is a sunny, mellow creation, chock full of Dvořák's characteristic melodies and rhythms.

There was very little mellowness in the Vianos' interpretation of this great work. This was an aggressive, in-your-face performance, very confident and very loud. First violinist Lucy Wang has a steely, incisive tone; second Hao Zhou's sound is also incisive but warmer. Viola Aiden Kane and cellist Tate Zawadiuk equal them for volume and strength; in that respect the quartet is evenly matched.

Count Andrey Rasumovsky.
Robust muscularity, typical of Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) in his middle period, suited the group's character better. In Op. 59, No. 3 in C, one of those set dedicated to and named after Count Rasumovsky (1806), Zhou and Wang switched chairs, something you don't see that often, and it seemed to help the overall effect. There was more shading, subtlety, and varied dynamics, the funeral march was appropriately misterioso, the minuet appropriately graceful. Still, the finale went like the wind; it was exhilarating, and they pulled it off, but I'm not sure it was Beethoven.

Robert and Clara Schumann.
Things came together in the Piano Quintet in E-flat, Op. 44 (1842) by Robert Schumann (1810-1856). Yui is a strong player who plays with the lid all the way up, and I've heard her often on this series, where she has been known to overwhelm other quartets, in this and other pieces. In the Viano she has finally met her match in terms of bold expression and sheer volume, and the group's performance of this expansive, extroverted work was the most successful of the evening. Zhou again sat first chair.

The Viano has won numerous competitions and awards, and they are just getting started. This was their first appearance on the Music Guild series, and one hopes future programs are a tad more adventurous. Technically, they are individually and collectively superb, and I expect within 10 years they will be at the top of their profession. And maybe playing with a little more, dare we say, maturity.


Viano Quartet, Music Guild Los Angeles, Gerard R. Daniel Recital Hall, Cal State Long Beach, Tuesday, February 11, 8:00 p.m.
Images: Viano Quartet: artists' website; Micah Yui: Colburn School; Dvořák plaque: Paul McClure, flickr; Rasumovsky: Wikipedia; The Schumanns: New York Times.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

“The Americas” at Long Beach

The original "El Salón México" in Mexico City, as depicted in the 1948 movie of the same name.


Long Beach Symphony at the Terrace Theater, Long Beach Performing Arts Center

Though a roster that confined itself to one composer from the United States and two from Mexico inevitably left out a considerable acreage of other “Americas,” Eckart Preu’s characteristically subtle and thoughtful program-building for his latest Long Beach Symphony concert otherwise yielded a rich mixture of ethnic and cultural, as well as purely musical, cross-currents.

Eckart Preu.
It was book-ended with two works by the chameleonic Aaron Copland: urban, Jewish, gay, intellectual, born and bred in Brooklyn, he nonetheless responded creatively to the widest range of influences, from various aspects of early 20th century Modernism, to the broader European symphonic tradition, to jazz and early American folk music, to Western landscapes and legends, and to the popular idioms of Mexico.

This latter was where we began, with his El Salón México, composed between 1932 and 1936. Though a work of exuberant gaiety, awash with whistleable tunes and fragments of tunes, it’s still a considerable test for orchestra and conductor, with changes of time-signature on virtually every page, sometimes from single measure to single measure. Its harmonies, tempi, and textures are just as ever-changing, with slamming, percussion-driven tuttis abruptly confronting brass fanfares, that in turn dissolve into instrumental solos.

The word “solo”, indeed, peppers the score, the first notable one being allotted to a trumpet, the part being marked "ad lib" and played in this performance with wonderful boozy loucheness by LBSO Principal Miles McAllister. But it’s almost invidious to pick out any one player, as the orchestra as a whole negotiated the work’s pitfalls with mountain goat-like surefootedness. Maestro Preu’s direction made plenty of elbow-room for expressive rubato, indeed in some earlier stretches the piece struck me as being as much about siesta-like relaxation as dancing energy, though it gathered up a fine head of steam for the ricocheting end.

Aaron Copland (standing) and Carlos Chávez.

The score’s title page bears the sub-title “Popular Type Dance Hall in Mexico City”, and the person who introduced Copland to the real-life dance hall “El Salón México” in 1932 was Carlos Chávez, the Mexican composer and conductor with whom he had become close friends after they met for the first time in New York in 1926. Each was an advocate for and conductor of the other’s works, Copland being particularly fond of Chávez’s 1935 Sinfonía india (Symphony No. 2), which he gave with various orchestras many times in later years.

The word “symphony” inevitably conjures up expectations of a lengthy, multi-movement creation, but Sinfonía india, the opening work in the second half of the LBSO program, is in a single movement of only about the same duration as the overture-like El Salón México. Though it bears the outline of a three-part, fast-slow-fast structure over its 12-minute span, Chávez’s inspiration essentially derives from the adoption, juxtaposition and manipulation of indigenous ("indian") melodies rather than any Western symphonic model.

If anything, the challenge to the orchestra here was even more formidable than in El Salón México. Here again were the constantly changing rhythms and time-signatures, sharp juxtapositions of textures with no warm cushions of orchestral homogeneity for anyone to hide in, and many prominent solos, but added to that a lyrical intensity that in the slow central section—based on an indelibly memorable Yaqui melody (shout-out to E-flat clarinetist Michael Grego for his memorable playing of its first appearance)— grows into an impassioned threnody, perhaps for vanishing native ways of life in threatened natural habitats.

Aztec musicians playing teponaztli
(foreground) and 
huéhuetl, both
called for in 
the Sinfonía india.
With all four percussionists beating out the complex accompanying rhythms on an array of instruments even more exotic and varied than Copland employs in his piece, the LBSO and Maestro Preu proudly soared with this climactic passage, like the splendor of a precipitous waterfall encountered in the Amazon jungle, and then just as excitingly navigated the rapids of Chávez’s poco a poco accelerando gradual into the obsessively driven final section of the symphony. This for me was the highlight of the concert.

There couldn’t have been a greater contrast than the soft, slow opening strains of Appalachian Spring, in the concert suite that Copland reworked the following year, for a smallish orchestra, from his 1944 13-instrument “ballet for Martha” (Graham). To my ears Preu brought out a little more prominently than usual the discreet dissonances that permeate this familiar score, like threads of iron ore beneath the landscape of rural middle Americana to which Copland the chameleon here turns his attention.

In the mood of cultural and musical cross-references, it struck me too how similar in its unfolding intervals and overall sensibility is the Shaker song “Simple Gifts,” with which Copland memorably climaxes Appalachian Spring, to the Yaqui melody that permeates the central section of Chávez’s Sinfonía india, even down to the way both composers repeat them again and again with imaginatively varied and increasingly full instrumentation.

Arturo Márquez.
The other work in the program, filling the familiar concerto location as the major portion of the first half, was Máscaras for harp and chamber orchestra (the LBSO strings appropriately reduced to 8-8-5-4-2), written in 1998-99 by the contemporary Mexican Arturo Márquez (b. 1950), with Moldovan-born Ina Zdorovetchi giving a sparklingly focused account of the solo part.

Ina Zdorovetchi.
In a broadly slow-fast-slow-fast layout, each of its four movements represents a “mask” that adumbrates an aspect of Mexican culture—socio-political with the first, Máscara Flor (Mask Flower) and fourth, La Pasión según Marcos (the Passion according to Marcos), more generally musical and cultural with the second, Máscara Son (Mask sound), and third, La Pasión según San Juan de Letrán (The Passion according to San Juan de Letrán)

For me the concerto, though beautiful and engaging throughout, and lovingly performed by all concerned, seemed too slight to carry the burdens of the programs, particularly for those for the outer movements (too elaborate to spell out here). Best therefore, to disregard them and appreciate the work for what it was, as the audience clearly did. I did retain a niggle, though, that there are other concerted works by composers from both sides of the many borders of our conjoined continents more substantial and deserving to occupy a 25-minute slot in a concert representing “The Americas.” 


Long Beach Symphony Orchestra, Terrace Theater, Saturday, February 8, 2020, 8 p.m.
Images: El Salón México: Mexico City website; Eckart Preu: Long Beach Post; Copland and Chávez: St. Olaf College; Aztec instruments: Wikipedia; Márquez: Paladino Media; Ina Zdorovetchi: artist website;

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Wednesday, February 12, 2020

"Episode de la Vie d’un Artiste"—In a Tuned Concert Hall

Interior of the Segerstrom Concert Hall, showing the doors into the reverberation chambers
at the side partly open.


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa

The unexpected invitation from Alexey Bonca, PR and Social Media Manager at Pacific Symphony (thank you, Alexey!) to join a short behind-the-scenes tour of the Segerstrom Concert Hall prior to the start of last Thursday evening’s concert, made me not only notice more than usual the quality of sound in this marvelous space, but also newly aware of how it’s achieved, due to the tour highlighting the formidable array of adjustable acoustic devices designed into the structure.

Unavoidable to the eye from wherever you are in the hall are the giant curved silver canopies that can be raised and lowered over the performance area to modify the sound, but the tour also took in the pairs of tall, deep, blue-painted reverberation chambers on each side of the auditorium itself, hidden behind doors on every level, that are openable to full 90˚.

Carl St. Clair in action.
The result was that—particularly during Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique in the second half—my attention kept being drawn to those part-opened doors, pondering how instrumental tones and timbres could be subtly clarified and enhanced by the extent to which they were allowed to penetrate the chambers.

In truth, the PSO’s long-tenured Music Director Carl St. Clair has not only honed a fine instrument over his years with the orchestra itself, but for the past decade or so has also been able to work with them in this “machine for performing in” to develop interpretations that are triply symbiotic, serving the specific needs of works and their composers through the skills of the players enhanced in turn by an aural environment enabled through technology.

Title-page of Berlioz's manuscript of the Symphonie Fantastique.

But what about the evening's music itself? The great English advocate for and biographer of Berlioz, David Cairns, in a recently republished essay (“Munch or Davis?”, in Discovering Berlioz, Toccata Press, London, 2019, pp. 359-361) posits two differing approaches to Berlioz interpretation, exemplified by those two conductors: the one (Charles Munch) brilliant, highlighting contrast, improvisatory, rhythmically free, and responsive to programmatic content; the other (Sir Colin Davis) taking a long and “purer” view, allowing Berlioz’s structural coherence to manifest itself through subtle molding of his extended melodic lines, though without neglecting instrumental color.

Harriet Smithson, painted by
Claude-Marie-Paul Dubufe in 1828.
On the evidence of this performance, Maestro St. Clair tends to the Davis camp. His performance of the Symphonie Fantastique: Épisode de la vie d'un artiste Op. 14 H. 48 was shaped and controlled with deliberate but delicate precision—enhanced by the spacious, airy acoustic environment chosen—and nowhere more so than at the very start of the opening Rêveries-Passions movement, which he took at Berlioz’s precisely metronomed Largo (quarter-note = 56), with lovingly detailed shaping of the passages for muted strings before the idée fixe—the musical representation of Berlioz's unknowing muse, Harriet Smithson—made her first appearance some six minutes in.

Overall his performance was exceptionally expansive, clocking in at some 56 minutes, and that without observing repeats either of the first movement exposition or the opening 77 measures of the Marche au supplice fourth movement—not to mention being drawn together somewhat by an unmarked but absolutely appropriate attacca between the march and the final Songe d’une nuit due sabbat.

In remarks to the audience before raising his baton, he concentrated first on the Fantastique’s program (indeed, how could anyone not, given that “Episode de la vie d’un artiste” has titular pride of place on the manuscript score?). But he went on to emphasize equally the symphony’s many musical innovations, in structure, in harmony, in instrumental resources (much the largest orchestra that any composer had assembled for a symphony when it was written, astonishingly as early as 1830), and even spatially.

The second movement, Un Bal, is the only one that requires harps, but Berlioz requests at least two for each part. Here, there was only one per part, but that was understandable as the instruments known to the composer are likely to have been smaller and less powerful in tone than modern ones. Otherwise this movement was deliciously airborne in its waltz fantasy.

Complying with Berlioz’s spatial innovation right at the start of the next movement, the Scène aux champs, the PSO oboist went discreetly derrière la scène for his duet with the on-stage English horn. Thanks to the Segerstrom’s state-of-the-art video system, we duly saw him on the big screen playing in the side-stage semi-darkness, but personally I’d have preferred to have been left with the mental picture of distant shepherd piping in the countryside.

Berlioz in 1832, by Emile Signol.
Otherwise, this movement benefited signally from Maestro St. Clair’s patient long view, progressing seamlessly from that rapt, pastoral opening through increasingly disturbed and brooding territory to the timpani thunderstorm with which it climaxes, here as cleanly tuned and impactful as one could reasonably expect.

So to the Marche au supplice. The scaffold was approached deliberately but trenchantly, but I thought the climax could have done with more sheer savagery to make its full effect—here as much as anywhere a slightly risk-averse aspect to the performance had its downside. But on the other hand the final movement nightmare worked magnificently.

The strings’ immaculate tuning made Berlioz’s multi-divided and at one point virtually atonal writing at the opening come off with exquisite precision, the E-flat clarinet danced evilly, the pair of tubas honked rather than boomed out the Dies Irae in as good a mimic of the composer’s specified ophicleides as one could wish, two bass drums thundered (i.e. not merely the two players that Berlioz requests), and the offstage deep bells had appropriately sepulchral sonority—and here being able to see them in action via the video link was a plus. Above all, the constant twists and turns, stops and starts in the music’s progress were negotiated so sure-footedly by Maestro St. Clair and the orchestra that all seemed inevitable… and they really did let rip in the climactic measures.

Alain Lefèvre.
Before the concert, the French Canadian pianist Alain Lefèvre, guest soloist for the Ravel Piano Concerto in G major M. 83, deftly turned his conversation with host Alan Chapman into an impassioned critique of the “pop-ification” of classical music performance and promotion, and its consequent cheapening effect. Equally welcome to hear was his encomium for the amazingly precocious “Canadian Mozart”, André Mathieu, who completed his first piano concerto at the age of 6, but died in 1968 at only 38 after a long and tragically losing battle with alcoholism.

Perhaps on another occasion M. Lefèvre might bring one of Mathieu’s concertos with him, but this time around, after fractionally imprecise ensemble between piano and orchestra in the Ravel’s fearsomely abrupt opening, he and the appropriately reduced PSO (string strength down to 8-8-6-6-4, to match the slender wind and brass sections of eight and four players respectively) turned in a performance as deft and secure as one would expect from a pianist with this music in his blood and an orchestra as familiar as any with the style of the composer who so influenced Ravel in this concerto, George Gershwin.

Maurice Ravel in 1916.
The concert had begun also with a similarly reduced orchestra for another Ravel work, the four movements that he orchestrated in 1919 from the six-movement wartime piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed between 1914 and 1917. Here immediately were the immaculately blended string playing and eloquent “speaking” woodwinds that so distinguished the whole evening, as well as astutely judged tempi that, particularly in the third movement Menuet, avoided the risk of getting becalmed in Ravel’s exquisite harmonies and thus becoming monotonous.

Lastly before the interval, M. Lefèvre stilled the ovation that greeted his performance of the Ravel concerto by sitting back at the piano to deliver his own Grand Carnaval, a jauntily torrential solo composed a couple of years ago that seemed to channel the spirits of both Offenbach and Poulenc. 


Pacific Symphony Orchestra, Renée and Henry Segerstrom Concert Hall, Thursday February 6, 2020, 8 p.m.
Images: Segerstrom Concert Hall: SCFTA website; Carl St. Clair: courtesy PSO; Symphonie Fantastique manuscript: IMSLP; Harriet Smithson: Wikipedia; Berlioz: Wikipedia; Alain Lefèvre: artist website; Ravel: Reddit.

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Tuesday, February 11, 2020

French Baroque in Long Beach

Image result for versailles
The Palace of Versailles.


Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, "24 Hours at Versailles," Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach

Louis XIV.
It's good to be the king.

And Louis XIV of France (1638-1715), known as the Sun King, had it good all during his long 72-year reign. We were given a taste of what his typical day was like, musically at least, at the latest concert by Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, dubbed "24 Hours at Versailles," last Friday at the Beverly O'Neill Theater.

Louis had court musicians who played when he got up, when he presented himself at court, when he ate, when he reviewed his troops, when he did other kingly stuff, and when he went to bed. Musica Angelica's associate music director Gonzalo X. Ruiz constructed this program to illustrate a day in the life.

An offstage soprano intoned an a cappella chant, which set a 17th century mood on a darkened stage. Then a few musicians entered and played one of the Trios pour le coucher du Roy, LWV 35, by Jean-Baptiste Lully (1632-1687), which accompanied Louis getting out of bed. The full ensemble then entered to play two movements from the first Suite de symphonies by Jean-Joseph Mouret (1682-1738): the Rondeau, familiar as the theme from the PBS series Masterpiece Theater, and the Vivement. The suite dates from 1729.
Gonzalo X. Ruiz.

Jean-Baptiste Lully.
Two short pieces by relatively minor composers, François-André Danican Philidor's (1652-1739) La Marche Royale (1679) and Menuet de Flore, from Michel-Richard DeLalande’s (1657-1726) Symphonies pour les soupers du Roy, followed, as first the king reviewed his troops and then strolled in the garden after lunch. Then it was time for Louis to say his prayers. La Sonnerie de Ste. Geneviève du Mont-de-Paris (1723) is an enchanting, hypnotic piece by Marin Marais (1656-1728), for me the highlight of this program. Violins and viola da gamba weave ever more intricate solos over a repetitive, monotonous continuo accompaniment. The evening's soprano, Molly Netter, ended the half with the long, difficult, and ultimately moving Seconde Leçon de Ténèbres (1714) by François Couperin (1668-1733).

Molly Netter.
I thought it was a bit of a stretch to include excerpts from Jean-Philippe Rameau’s (1683-1764) opera Les Indes Galantes on this program; the piece premiered in 1735, 20 years after Louis died. But it is a great work, one of the glories of the French Baroque, not often performed, and it was a novel pleasure to hear the four arias sung by Netter and the various instrumental excerpts played by the full ensemble vigorously conducted by Ruiz; the Air polonois was particularly dramatic and striking. The opera excerpts took up most of the second half, ended with a bang, and got a standing ovation.

Jean-Philippe Rameau.
Most of the audience seemed to think the concert was over at that point, as most of the musicians left the stage, but we still needed to put His Majesty back to bed. Marais, who had been Lully’s assistant at court, contributed another of those Trios pour le coucher du Roy, played by the few instrumentalists who remained, along with a short song of his called Les Voix Humaines (1701), sung by Netter, and then the stage grew dark as the soprano, now offstage, repeated her a cappella chant. It was effective mood-wise, but a bit of an anticlimax and confusing to those in the audience who hadn't checked their program.

Marin Marais.
Musica Angelica played, in ensembles large and small, with their usual verve and technical prowess. Viola da gamba player Justin Haynes-Pilon stood out for his dazzling musicianship. And soprano Netter was marvelous. She possesses a large, beautiful, gleaming voice without much vibrato, phrases with exquisite taste, and sings with charming expressiveness.

Ruiz is known as a distinguished practitioner of the Baroque oboe, but here he played guitar and drum, and was, to put it mildly, an enthusiastic conductor. He moves around a lot, throws his whole body into it, and seemingly conducts every note, sometimes to the point of distraction and veering dangerously close to the comic, but always with a great and sincere passion for the music.

François Couperin.
The program avoided the potential awkwardness in presenting so many short pieces by linking them with Ruiz’ spoken introductions and David Belkovski’s harpsichord improvisations; the musicians entered and exited without pause, creating a seamless flow to the evening. Since there were so many pieces, many of them with long and obscure French titles that could have used some explaining, so many dates, and so many major and minor composers, and Ruiz' comments were brief, this concert cried out for program notes; all we got were musicians' bios, texts, and translations.

Ruiz’ innovative concept featured mostly unfamiliar selections from the French Baroque, played as usual with consummate authentic style and virtuosity by the period instrument specialists of Musica Angelica.

It was good to be Louis, and good to be in the audience for this interesting, unique, and well-played concert.


Musica Angelica Baroque Orchestra, "24 Hours at Versailles"
Beverly O'Neill Theater, Long Beach, Friday, February 7 at 8 p.m.
Images: Versailles: Palace website; Louis XIV: Wikipedia; Gonzalo X. Ruiz: Boston University; Lully: Wikipedia; Marais: Wikipedia; Molly Netter: Bach Cantatas website; Couperin: Wikipedia; Rameau: Wikipedia.

Brian Jagde: Operatic Ambassador to Wine Aficionado

Simon Pauly

INTERVIEW: Brian Jagde

Civic Theatre, Chicago

The first thing to know about Brian Jagde is that his name is pronounced “Jade,” like the jewel. He is definitely sparkling, in personality and in talent. Though the prizewinning tenor’s earlier education included computer science and business, Jagde seemed destined to be an opera singer. With a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel mix named Cavaradossi as a traveling companion, what could he possibly be but a tenor?

After switching from baritone in 2008, Jagde has made numerous debuts as a tenor—5 of those in quick succession in 2019—and is returning to one of his most frequented venues, Chicago Lyric Opera, this month in one of his favorite roles, Pinkerton, in Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Not limited to the opera stage, Jagde will soon make his debut in Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Mahler’s Das Lied von der Erde. I caught up with Brian between Butterfly rehearsals in Chicago.

Erica Miner: What was your journey from Purchase College Conservatory of Music to the opera world?

Brian Jagde: I was born in Plainview, Long Island. I’m a New York guy. I went to State University for computer science and business and wasn’t enjoying it very much. I’d always sung, and I’d heard of one school that was starting a new program. I didn’t even know it was opera, I just wanted to learn how to sing. I auditioned and got in somehow, so I started all over as a freshman. I’d always sung tenor in chorus and in high school musical theatre. So I went as a tenor. They switched me to baritone about a semester in. I had just started studying opera, not knowing it was something I would fall in love with [Laughs]. It was kind of shocking to them, I guess because the color being created by me, within the technique I was being taught for the first time in my life, had a darker, rounder sound; so they made me a baritone. That stayed with me for the next 8 years. I had done some young artist programs while in my Master’s program at Purchase and continued to do young artists programs afterwards, mostly just tiny roles that were really high [Laughs]. I went to Chautauqua and Virginia Opera that way. My first gig in college was Opera Iowa, part of the Des Moines Metro Opera Program. My job was to audition, that’s all I did. I had to make my own spreadsheet to find them, everything in a 400-mile radius that I could drive to [Laughs], whether a leading role in a really small company or a young artist program. Meanwhile at these auditions, people were like, “Are you sure you’re not a tenor?” I always said, “Well, my teacher says I’m a baritone.”

Todd Rosenberg
EM: But not necessarily.

BJ: It turns out that’s not always the case, but I didn’t know any better. After a residency in the Virginia Opera program, my voice kept getting higher. I was able to sing up to a high “C.” And I still had no low notes to speak of [Laughs]. No natural bottom. I thought I should look into this. I found a teacher in New York—I was living in the City on and off, mostly waiting tables to pay rent and study voice. (My mom’s a chef, so I’d been in the food industry since I was a kid.) The only three things I did were sleep, study voice and work in restaurants. Anyway, I walked into him (the teacher) and he said, “You’re a tenor.” [Laughs.]

EM: Without even hearing you.

BJ: He’s very familiar with singers’ anatomy. He did a residency to study all the body parts of the voice and bodies of singers. He just heard my speaking voice and could see from the shape of my neck, “I doubt in any way that you’re a baritone.” [Laughs.] We worked a bit and I understood what he was trying to do. It was stuff that I never heard before about technique. After a week of lessons he said, “I’ll work with you as a baritone, but I don’t think it would serve either of us.” 2 weeks later I was doing my first audition for a manager, got one and sang tenor arias for all the auditions I had set up as a baritone. 5 weeks later I auditioned for Merola and got into the young artist’s program, my first year as a tenor. It was all a little scary [Laughs].

EM: What was that experience like?

BJ: I was shocked at all the transition happening so fast. It’s only considered the best year-long young artist’s program in the country. But it all worked out. I kept studying and waiting tables. The next thing I know, they offered me an Adler-ship. I was shocked. It’s always somewhere I would have wanted to go, whether as a baritone or a tenor. As an Adler I got tons of stage experience on one of the largest stages in the world, physically and on the spectrum of how big opera can get. My experience with coaches was helpful, too, especially since I was still learning all this repertoire, having just switched to tenor. It was all really new, super exciting. I was gung-ho. It’s the only way you can be, you have no choice, as to “making it.” [Laughs.] 

EM: Where was your first big debut?

BJ: I had some tenor roles in some regional houses. In my third year as an Adler they offered me Cavaradossi in Tosca. That was a pretty big deal. Previously I’d found a really great cover job in Santa Fe, Cavaradossi. Then my big break came. I’d just come off winning Operalia that summer and at Santa Fe the tenor who was supposed to sing the role was released from his contract. They asked if I would sing the role a week and a half before opening. I was like, “Okay.” [Laughs.] It was kind of shocking, but I really went for it. You don’t have much choice in these matters. I was just a nobody [Laughs] walking in just trying to cover a role to have it under my belt. Here I am getting 12 performance chances to sing for people who travel to Santa Fe from all over the world, a big deal. That whole season all of a sudden people started to know who I was as opposed to just this guy singing in Upstate New York.

EM: Now you’re singing Pinkerton in Chicago.

BJ: for the first time in 2 ½ years. When I made my debut here it was sudden. Again, another tenor was unable to perform, and they needed a Cavaradossi. That seems to be one of the roles that introduces me to houses [Laughs]. That was 5 years ago. Chicago famously casts far into the future, so this is the first gig they could offer me. Here I am, finally back. I’m so happy to be here. It’s an incredible house. I love singing here. And with Ana Maria (Martinez), who is just one of the gems of our business. She has this spirit around her, so pleasant and humble. Just a lovely person to work with. It makes me want to be a better singer, even more than I always do. I’m pretty hard on myself [Laughs] and it’s nice to work with people like her.

Todd Rosenberg.
EM: You seem to be doing a lot of Puccini. What are some of your other favorite roles?

BJ: This year is mostly Puccini, all roles I’ve done before. Last year was kind of crazy, all brand-new roles. Sometimes we have to take hard, challenging new roles, but it’s nice to come back to a role that you feel very comfortable in. Puccini was always a natural love for me. When I was a baritone all I wanted to do was sing the heavier Puccini roles. Unfortunately, because I was “a light baritone” I couldn’t sing them [Laughs]. Here I am now, singing a lot of Puccini. My favorite exciting role I’m going to be doing that I got to do last year is Cavalleria. I truly loved doing it. Such a different challenge for me vocally. I did it twice last year, once for recording and once for another video of a new production by Robert Carsen. I did 10 performances of Don Alvaro in Forza. That was my true Verdi debut lead. I had done Traviata, Macduff, smaller roles like Ismaele in Nabucco, Radamès in Aida. But this was another thrust into the heaviest realm of Verdi. All of a sudden my voice felt so comfortable. It was a big challenge, of course. We take all kinds of roles as singers. Some are more serviceable, some are where we thrive. Pavarotti sang everything under the sun, but can anybody claim that Nemorino wasn’t the best fit for his voice? It’s not only about being the “right” voice that people have in their heads. It’s about making it you, within your voice. Forza felt so comfortable. Like when you find the right pillow, you know? It’s really important for your neck support throughout the night [Laughs]. I had two debuts with Luisotti last year, one was Forza. To have somebody in the pit who worked with me so much, it makes all the difference. We did Lescaut in San Francisco last year. More Puccini, of course [Laughs]. Seems like there’s a need for tenors who have that kind of weight in their voice and are able to sing really long nights. I sang three roles last year that were over three hours long. Lescaut, Forza and Enzo in Gioconda, which is a whole other ball of wax [Laughs].

 EM: The tessituras for all of them are difficult.
Anthony Clark Evans

BJ: They’re high and heavy. To thrust yourself in a 3,000-seat house over a full orchestra blaring away in Puccini, you really have to have enough voice, enough cut. It’s really a challenge.

EM: You’ve been interviewed for Wine Spectator Magazine. Does that come from your mom being a chef?

BJ: It’s all related. When my mom was learning to become a chef I was already 6 or 7. She watched a lot of TV cooking shows. Not for entertainment, but for the details of how to make a meal. I watched her do that every night. She started making different meals and went to school for it. I always was fascinated, paid attention when she was cooking. I think there’s an art to cooking. Maybe that’s why I was connected to it. Waiting tables felt so comfortable for me. In one job, wine classes were mandatory. They really wanted us to be at a high New York City level with training, even though this was in Westchester. I think that’s where I learned how to love wine. I got to taste all kinds, learned how to serve them, studied all the different varietals of grapes, understood the flavor profiles. I became super fascinated, obsessed. How people produce wine is such an art form. Knowing what flavor profile you’re going to go for, how to let the grapes do what they do. There’s a lot that goes into it. Viticulture is incredible.

EM: You could study it for a lifetime.

BJ: [Laughs] Exactly. When I moved to New York City in 2006 I was working at a new restaurant, A Voce. They had this master sommelier from France. At the time there were like 200 people in the world with that title. He offered me an assistant sommelier position. I’d gotten to taste amazing wines because the clientele could afford them. Some could pay $6500 a bottle.

EM: [Gasps.]

BJ: There was this cool billionaire who would come in for lunch once a week—he was a fan of the chef. He’d spend $10,000 on wine every week. He’d start with a white burgundy—$2500—and would only have 1 or 2 glasses. If he wanted meat, he would have a red. He then would move to the red Bordeaux—$6,000 or $7,000 a bottle. We’d never charge him for food [Laughs]. He would leave so much wine behind, never drank all of it. So we servers all got to try so many amazing wines. Latour from the 40s, Petrus from the 80s, wines I could never afford [Laughs]. After such a long time of studying wines I finally got to taste them. In San Francisco there was a gentleman from Wine Spectator who is a big opera fan and liked the idea of a crossover. So I was in the magazine last year. It comes in handy when you’re at a dinner table and trying to entertain your friends who appreciate it.

EM: I’ve been reading about Your work with Opera for Peace. Can you describe the organization and your role?

Todd Rosenberg,
BJ: It’s very new. I’m titled “peace ambassador.” There’s never been an organization like this in the opera world. The first part of their mission, which connects all the young artist programs worldwide, is geared toward the young artist and the future of opera, a way to exchange information. So far we’ve had many partners sign up to be a part of it, a lot of them major opera houses. This year we’re starting an exchange of one or two students from overseas, have them transfer to a company in the US for two or three weeks and vice versa. Not only are you getting a culture change but you’re also seeing how other people teach around the world. 

Something I’ve noticed the more I’ve worked in Europe is how much knowledge you can have just from being there. Even on a two-week contract I can learn something new all the time. There’s so much knowledge out there and this is going to help spread the wealth of it. As an ambassador I’m going to be involved in concerts that raise money for young artists around the world and also for master classes. We have a great team of ambassadors, 17 or 18 of them, lots of amazing people like Lawrence Brownlee. It’s very diverse look at opera, too, to express the themes of diversity, acceptance, peace, love, trying to partner with organizations like the Nobel Prize Committee and UNESCO. There’s unlimited potential.

EM: You’re slated to perform concert works. Do you foresee more concerts in the future?

BJ: I debuted the Verdi Requiem with Concertgebouw, an awesome experience. Next season I’m doing Beethoven 9 and Das Lied, the kind of rep that suits me. I’m not going to end up singing a ton of Messiahs [Laughs]. I will do other Mahler pieces, like the 8th. There are tons of song cycles with orchestra, too. So I’m looking forward to doing many more concerts. It’s super exciting. I really  enjoy being onstage with orchestra. It’s kind of cool not having to play a character and just be yourself. I also love doing recitals. This year I’m honored to be asked to do another recital in Peralada, Spain. They have this amazing festival. Jonas Kaufmann, Piotr Beczała and I are all going to be performing around the same time. It’s going to be a cool summer for tenors [Laughs].

EM: You’ll be in good company.

BJ: It’ll be fun. I’ll be singing at the Met again, too. It’s always nice to sing in all the houses in America. Nice to be home, too [Laughs].

EM: I’m delighted for you, and so happy to talk to you. This has been terrific. Toi, toi, for Butterfly

BJ: Thank you, Erica.

Simon Pauly

Chicago Lyric Opera’s Madame Butterfly runs from Feb. 6 - Mar. 8 at the Civic Theatre.


Photo credits: Simon Pauly, Todd Rosenberg
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Saturday, February 8, 2020

“Music Around the World” With Flute and Harp

Susan Greenberg (l); Cristina Montes Mateo (r).

Susan Greenberg and
Cristina Montes Mateo,
First Fridays at First!–fff,
First Lutheran Church, Torrance

It was good to see a larger audience than usual at a Classical Crossroads’ “First Friday” recital welcome the flutist Susan Greenberg and harpist Cristina Montes Mateo for their February concert, a skillfully selected and effervescent program of six short pieces from as many countries. And if in part it was a bit like the musical equivalent of a taster gift pack, then I for one would welcome a full helping of any of the items excerpted.

Adrian Shaposhnikov.
First up was the middle, Menuetto, movement of the Sonata for Flute and Harp by the Russian Adrian Shaposhnikov (1888-1967), composed in 1925 and revised in 1962. This was as grave and courtly as you might expect—a nostalgic and ghostly echo, perhaps, in the post-revolutionary ‘20s, of the days of Imperial Russia— with a yet more wistful and somewhat Ravelian tinge to its brief central section, introduced by a few measures for the harp alone. It would be a distinct pleasure to hear the whole sonata from these performers.

Then it was a long jump to Argentina for a relatively familiar piece by the only really well-known composer on the travelers’ roster, Astor Piazzolla and his 1986 Histoire du Tango, from which Ms. Greenberg and Señora Mateo played the third movement, Night Club, 1960. This weaves with particular effectiveness an openly melancholic strain between the recurrences of the tango rhythm, though in it I did feel that the harp, more sonorous than the originally accompanying guitar, tended to mask the quite low-lying flute line; perhaps it was an acoustic vagary of the location where I was sitting.

Joseph Lauber
Back across the Atlantic to Switzerland, where there was a strong hint of cowbells in the harp part, and mountain vistas evoked by the soaring flute line, in the introduction to the fourth movement Gaillarde from the Quatre danses médiévales Op. 45 by Joseph Lauber (1864-1952), composed in 1928. Indeed, this waywardly atmospheric and quite extensive opening section was rather more interesting than the relatively brief and high-stepping dance section to which it led. Again, it would be good to hear the entire four-movement composition played by these performers.

Gerardo Gombau.
The first work on the program that was not an excerpt was Apunte Betico, for solo harp, written in 1951 by the Spaniard Gerardo Gombau (1906-1971). In this brief depiction of a southern Spanish landscape, it was easy to hear in Señora Mateo’s skillful playing echoes of guitar timbres, plaintively evoking the soul of Spain. After this, I did feel my native country’s credentials to be a little under-represented by the chirpy strains of Frank Brockett’s The Mocking Bird, for piccolo with (presumably) piano accompaniment transferred to the harp.

Little now seems discoverable about Brockett, who was apparently a then well-known piccolo virtuoso in early 20th-century London. Even his dates given in one source—1898-1977—are called into question by some publications of his pieces: The Mocking Bird itself is quoted in two places as having appeared in both 1919 and 1890! However, it gave Ms. Greenberg the chance to demonstrate both the piercing purity and nimbleness of the instrument she had owned and treasured for longer than she cared to recall.

Finally to France for the last and by some margin most substantial piece on the program, Narthex for Flute and Harp by Bernard Andrès. Now 79, M. Andrès has pursued a dual career both as harp virtuoso and composer, writing many works not only for the harp but also for choir, orchestra and various chamber ensembles. Narthex, composed in 1971, was inspired by his visits to Romanesque churches in Brittany, in some porches (i.e. narthexes) of which can be found representations of biblical scenes.

Bernard Andrès.
Its nine-minute single movement opens with a plaintive flute melody against a simple harp ostinato, that abruptly gives way to progressively more active, and indeed disturbed music, ranging through some of those scenes with a wealth of illustrative instrumental effects, including both rattling with a tuning-fork and tapping with fingers on the harp frame, and eerie glissandi made by inserting a finger into the flute's detached mouthpiece. What, one wonders, are M. Andrès’ other works like?

After enthusiastic applause for this highly imaginative piece, the performers stayed in France for their encore—and back to the taster pack for the tricky Danse à onze temps (Dance in 11 time), the last of the four movements of Suite en duo for flute (or violin) and harp (or piano) by Jean Cras (1879-1932). Once more—more please!


“First Fridays at First! – fff”: First Lutheran Church, Torrance, 12.15pm, Friday, February, 2020.
Images: The artists: Classical Crossroads; Shaposhnikov: Classical Music Online; Lauber: HeBu Musikverlag; Gombau: Discogs; Brockett: From Photographs of Well Known Flute Players, Rudall Carte & Co., London, 1926 and 1938 (courtesy of Stuart Scott); Andrès: Discogs.

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