Thursday, July 23, 2020

iPalpiti Festival 2020 Livestreaming

Trio Zadig play Tchaikovsky and Dvořák from Paris

Tchaikovsky in 1877.
As a title, “The Months” has hardly the turning-of-the-year resonance of “The Seasons,” but it would be a more accurate appellation for the 12 piano pieces commissioned late in 1875 from Tchaikovsky by the St. Petersburg editor Nikolai Bernard. These were for the following year’s editions of his monthly music magazine Nuvellist, and Bernard also chose subjects for each piece—e.g. January “by the fireside,” April the “snowdrop”, June a “barcarolle”, and so on—and all 12 editions (except, according to one source, September) opened with that month’s piece alongside a short poem and graphic illustration, also selected by Bernard. 

Though they share a simple ABA form, there’s plenty of variety in mood, texture, and pace across the dozen months in The Seasons Op. 37a, and so while they make a quite satisfactory whole, totaling 40-45 minutes, they also excerpt well. Trio Zadig, artists-in-residence at the Fondation Singer-Polignac in Paris, opened their contribution to this year’s (inevitably mostly virtual) iPalpiti Festival, with five selections in the arrangement for piano trio by the little-known Russian composer Alexander Goedicke (1877-1957). 

Alexander Goedicke.
Whatever the merits of Goedicke’s own music (n.b. to self: see what’s on YouTube), in these arrangements he seems not to put a foot wrong. Leaving Tchaikovsky’s piano original largely unaltered in those passages where the violin and cello are silent, elsewhere he skillfully allots melodic lines to either or both of the strings, with or without mutes as appropriate, and with much use of pizzicato coloring.

Trio Zadig’s selection cleverly moved through one month per season: the warmly confiding January by its fireside followed by the freshness of April’s snowdrop, in turn succeeded by the memorably wistful barcarole of June—the one indelibly knockout Tchaikovsky tune in the whole set, which has resulted in it being far more frequently performed as a standalone item than any of the others.

So far, so good, with the music spaciously and sensitively characterized in the clear acoustic of the Fondation’s recital room (the screen image of the two strings quite close together, well in front of the piano, emphasized that the latter was rather backwardly balanced), but to have inserted the vigorous and quite brief September “Hunt” between June and the even more soulful “Autumn Song” of October would have broken up 10+ minutes of rather unrelieved Slavic melancholy. No matter, concluding with December’s waltz—just as in the complete work—was exactly right: elegantly and unhurriedly swaying for the most part, with the Trio delivering perfectly Tchaikovsky’s subtle, throwaway end. 

Antonin Dvořák.
Cellist Marc Girard-Garcia took rather more notice of Dvořák’s Lento maestoso marking than the metronome quarter-note = 56 at the head of the first movement of the Piano Trio No. 4 in E minor Op. 90 B. 166 “Dumky”, composed in 1891, and with his forward balance and sweeping phrasing, kicked the work off powerfully indeed, arguably a little too portentously for the high-spirited dance into which the movement devolves.

For me, this pattern of over-emphasizing contrasts of dynamic and pace, loading the slow music with weight it’s not quite up to carrying, and precipitating jolting charges into the fast sections, carried through the whole performance. But then, I am probably in a minority of one in finding the Dumky Trio as a whole a rather odd, unsatisfactory bird in Dvořák’s chamber music. But there’s no denying the sheer panache and professionalism of his piano trio writing per se, and M. Girard-Garcia and his colleagues Boris Borgolotto (violin) and Ian Barber (piano) certainly played throughout with great beauty, commitment, and unanimity.

Let’s hope we have the chance to hear them again live in Southern California when this craziness is finally over. Meanwhile you can enjoy these performances online by clicking either the image above or here


Photos: Tchaikovsky: Tchaikovsky Research; Goedicke: Bach Cantatas website; Dvořák: Wikimedia Commons.

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Thursday, July 16, 2020

Elegiac Masterpieces Livestreamed

Steven Vanhauwaert.


Schumann, Busoni, and Debussy: Steven Vanhauwaert

The reactions of musicians to the global scything of live music with audiences by the Covid-19 pandemic has been hugely varied. Of necessity, large organizations have mostly resorted to streaming performances from past concerts, with very occasionally new performances made in venues empty but for the musicians themselves and recording staff. The inherent flexibility of individuals and chamber groups has, however, enabled more proactive attempts to fill the void.

Here in southern California’s South Bay area, a particularly grievous loss has been the multiplicity of chamber music series, some but not all under the auspices of Classical Crossroads Inc., so it is a particular pleasure to be able to review one recent livestreamed recital that would have graced any of their events, and which (for me) entirely overcame the pitfalls of trivialized or hackneyed repertoire, performance fallibility, and acoustic/recording challenges.

One might also mention awkwardnesses in how to talk to an unseen, remote audience, but the pianist Steven Vanhauwaert’s spoken introductions to the items in his recital streamed-as-live from his home on Sunday, July 12—Brahms’ Schumann Variations, Busoni’s Bach Fantasia, and two from Debussy’s second book of Préludes—avoided any, being models of engaging lucidity. More importantly, these works, mostly tending to the elegiac in mood, were as finely played as they were mutually complementary.

Brahms in 1855.
Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Robert Schumann in F-sharp minor, Op. 9,  composed in May-June 1854, was only his second work in variation form, and it is one of his earliest masterpieces. Brahms takes his theme from the fourth of Schumann’s Bunte Blätter ("Colored Leaves") Op. 99, and carries through its mood of wistful melancholy—the marking is Ziemlich langsam (moderately slow)—seamlessly into the first of his 16 variations.

Thereafter the mood does lighten and the pace pick up; there’s plenty of dynamic and tempo contrast with the fast Variations 5, 6, 9 and 13, but throughout Brahms keeps pulling back to that opening reflectiveness and pathos, and the seal is set when he ends with the very antithesis of the bravura that typically crowns variations-sets. The hushed, spare, somber brevity of the final Adagio Variation 16 clearly expresses his feelings for the Schumanns, with whom Brahms was deeply involved, in the wake of Robert’s failed suicide attempt only a couple of months before Brahms composed his Op. 9.

All this was fully conveyed in Mr. Vanhauwaert’s devoted performance, recorded in clear, faithful sound on his own Steinway, and concluding with a carefully gauged slow fade to black before he returned to sketch in Busoni’s career as a piano virtuoso, as a transcriber, and as a composer in his own right. As Mr. Vanhauwaert noted, the Fantasia nach Johann Sebastian Bach, BV. 253, composed in June 1909, is “a mix of both”, quoting several Bach chorale preludes but clothing and linking them with his own transitions and “rather quirky harmonic language.”

Ferruccio Busoni.
Though falling into several fairly clearly defined sections, Busoni’s Fantasia, like Brahms' Schumann Variations, has overall a somber elegiac quality, right from its arpeggiated Molto tranquillo e gravement opening, full of quiet portent in Mr. Vanhauwaert’s hands. And again like the Brahms, it ends not with a bang but with a rapt withdrawal, tranquillissimo, reflecting the dedication at the work’s head to the memory of Busoni’s father, who had died that May.

Suitably atmospheric accounts of Brouillards ("Mist") and Bruyères ("Heather"), the first and fifth of Debussy’s Préludes, Book Two, L. 123, concluded a recital that could only have been improved upon if it had taken place in the usual location and before the normal enthusiastic, capacity audience for Rolling Hills United Methodist Church’s “Second Sundays at Two” series. Let’s hope that the coming year sees all of us, and especially Mr. Vanhauwaert, back there. Meanwhile, and most fortunately, you can enjoy this recital online by clicking here or on the image at the top.


 Photos: Wikimedia Commons.

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Wednesday, July 15, 2020

Shelly Traverse Wraps Seattle Opera “Songs of Summer”

Sunny Martini

REVIEW: Shelly Traverse 

McCaw Hall, Seattle 

Seattle Opera’s innovative "Songs of Summer" recital series has been bringing some of the company’s most valued singers to an electronic stage via opera lovers’ cell phones, tablets, and computer screens. The series, which premiered in June with the illustrious Jamie Barton, will continue through July 13 with recitals available to stream on Seattle Opera’s website, as well as Facebook and YouTube, for two weeks from the premiere date.

As the company believes that the fight for racial justice touches all areas of society, the arts included, they are showing their commitment to this struggle by highlighting partner organizations that have been making an impact in Seattle communities.

On July 14, the company presented a recital featuring Shelly Traverse, soprano, accompanied by Beth Tankersley, piano. The partner organization for this program was Spectrum Dance Theater.

Traverse made a spectacular impression with her last-minute Seattle Opera mainstage debut as Hero in 2018’s Beatrice & Benedict. Attracting great acclaim in the media for her performance, Traverse literally stole the show vocally and dramatically.

She then charmed McCaw Hall audiences earlier this year as the music-loving Chan Parker in the much-praised Charlie Parker’s Yardbird. Traverse often performs as part of the company’s Programs & Partnerships initiatives, touring Washington state in a variety of family-friendly operatic productions.

Wendy Waltz
Spectrum Dance Theater, one of the Pacific Northwest's most esteemed dance companies, provides a valuable artistic service to a racially diverse community via performances, outreach, and school. Seattle Opera’s history with the company, and with TONY-nominated and Bessie-Award winning choreographer Donald Byrd, includes productions of Semele, Aida, Julius Caesar and Charlie Parker's Yardbird.

Traverse’s Songs of Summer program displayed her versatility in repertoire, with an array of French and American art songs, beloved opera arias by Mozart and Puccini, and selections by Broadway luminary Stephen Sondheim.

She showed her charming personality and engaging stage presence right from the start with an introductory speech in which she spoke of Seattle Opera’s commitment to the fight for racial justice, mentioning the artistic collaboration with Spectrum Dance Theater and the passion it displayed in the bold and powerful scene that choreographer Donald Byrd created for Charlie Parker's Yardbird. Then she launched into a nicely varied program. After hearing Traverse in a contemporary opera such as Charlie Parker it was lovely to hear her sing selections from the classical repertoire.

The soprano began the program with Despina’s lively aria, In Uomini, In Soldati from Mozart’s Così Fan Tutte. Traverse’s voice was well focused, and she showed a keen understanding of the character’s mischievous personality and cheeky humor.

The next selections, two art songs by Reynaldo Hahn, were the highlight of the program. A Chloris is perhaps the most well-known of Hahn’s Belle Époque repertoire for the female voice. Traverse captured the subtle charm of the piece and of the composer’s musical sensibilities, and melded the music beautifully with the text.

Her voice, which served her so well in Berlioz’ Beatrice and Benedict, showed that it was perfectly suited for French inflection in Le Rossignol des lilas as well. In this piece, which demonstrates the influence of Hahn’s teacher Massenet, Traverse’s voice floated in the air Impressionistically, yet with convincing, down-to-earth ardor.

Though Puccini’s O mio babbino caro has been somewhat oversung in recent times, Traverse sings with great sincerity, and her rendition of the perennial favorite had a youthfulness and freshness that was uplifting.

Traverse then stepped into Broadway musical territory with two Stephen Sondheim songs: “I remember” from Evening Primrose (text by Sondheim and James Goldman) and “On the steps of the Palace” from Into the Woods (text by Sondheim and James Lapine).

Musical theatre was the soprano’s first love, and it showed in her lively versions of these appealing works. Her voice is well-matched to this genre, and she showed powerful emotion, both comedic and dramatic, in her interpretations.

Evening Primrose was a made-for-TV musical about people who are not able to leave the place in which they live. Traverse, in a gesture adapted to the current crisis, dedicated “I remember” to those people who are self-sheltering. In “On the Steps of the Palace,” she winningly communicated the comic irony of Cinderella’s somewhat bemused soliloquy.

The program ended exquisitely with “Sure on this Shining Night” from Four Songs, Op. 13 by Samuel Barber (text by James Agee). Traverse sang with well-controlled legato and delicate phrasing. The song’s message also was appropriate for our present-day situation: May kindness watch for you…may all hearts be whole. Traverse’s charm, sincere manner and appealing voice conveyed the meaning to all who were fortunate enough to watch this finale to the Songs of Summer project. Pianist Beth Tankersley was an able accompanist and showed great sensitivity, especially in the Hahn and Barber pieces.

Sunny Martini


Photo credits: Wendy Waltz, Sunny Martini
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]