Tuesday, June 29, 2021

Disney Hall first time opening post-Covid, for LACO

LACO Music Director Jaime Martín with Concertmaster Margaret Batjer.

Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Walt Disney Hall, Los Angeles

For this special late-June LACO Summerfest concert—a one-off invitation-only event, underwritten by the philanthropists Terri and Jerry Kohl, "for LACO friends and family, vital community partners and others who have helped the orchestra weather the pandemic"—the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra was definitely acting as a pathfinder in the careful tiptoe back to something resembling live concert-going normality.

A palpable sense of anticipatory joy and relief invested the 800-strong, fully vaccinated audience—despite the concert start-time being pushed back considerably due to some stumbles in Disney Hall's ticket issuing and distribution around the Covid-checking tables outside—and this exploded into applause when firstly LACO's Executive Director Ben Cadwallader, then Concertmaster Margaret Batjer, and finally Music Director Jaime Martín successively took to the platform.

Alberto Ginastera.
Señor Martín's (splendidly unhackneyed) program sought to "pay homage to a physical location, in two pieces, the birthplace of the composer, and in the third, an inspirational destination" and thus it moved from mid-20th century Argentina as represented in a work by Alberto Ginastera (1916-1983), back to Italy in the early 19th century, seen and heard through the eyes and ears of Felix Mendelssohn on his tour of Europe, separated by a leap forward in time to an aural fresco of 21st century mariachi from the young Mexican composer, Juan Pablo Contreras (born 1987).

Ginastera's Variaciones concertantes, Op. 23, composed in 1953, is just what each half of its title says it is—a set of variations and a kind of concerto for chamber orchestra—but it has neither, on the one hand, a strongly contoured tune whose possibilities are explored in various ways, nor, on the other, any soloistic grandstanding, so that it instead fulfills its designations by the evocation of various moods, mostly contemplative or anticipatory, through changing instrumental colors and pacing, as if glinting off the facets of an idly turning mirrored disco ball.

The construction of Variaciones concertantes is as subtle as its sound-world (names of LACO soloists in this performance noted as follows). Against slow guitar-like arpeggios on the harp (Elisabeth Zosseder), a solo cello (Andrew Shulman) intones the slowly stepwise-rising theme. An equally contemplative interlude on the strings precedes the first (giocosa) variation, and here, as in all those to come, the designated flute (Sandy Hughes) proved to be in more of an equal concerto grosso type of relationship with the main body of players than a full-fledged soloist.

Successively the clarinet (Joshua Ranz), viola (Erik Rynearson), oboe and bassoon (Claire Brazeau and Ken Monday), trumpet and trombone (David Washburn and Alex Iles), violin (Margaret Batjer), and horn (Michael Thornton) fulfilled their highly varied concertante roles, before another interlude, this time for winds, led to a reprise of the theme, now on solo double bass (David Grossman) against those familiar harp arpeggios, giving way in turn to a joyous variation finale in rondo form for the full forces.

Sandy Hughes (flute) and
Claire Brazeau (oboe).
The orchestra clearly relished every opportunity that Ginastera's mastery of each instrument's characteristics and possibilities afforded them, both individually and in ensemble playing as tight as it was whiplash clear, as heard from high aloft in the Disney Hall's balcony, and the audience loved it.

For me Contreras' Mariachitlán suffered a little in comparison, following as it did such a many-sided and subtle masterpiece, but then one could, and probably should, regard it simply as a skillfully wrought occasional piece meant to do nothing but entertain—which it certainly did, in this chamber orchestra version newly-commissioned by LACO from the 2016 full orchestra original (which can be enjoyed on the composer's website).

In his own words Mariachitlán "recounts my experience visiting the Plaza de los Mariachis in Guadalajara, the capital of Jalisco, a place where mariachis play their songs in every corner and interrupt each other to win over the crowd." My observant spouse also likened it to hearing your car radio keep losing the signal and drifting between stations—in this case from a canción ranchera to a vals romántico to a son jalisciense, and back—beguiling, ear-tickling, fun.

Juan Pablo Contreras enjoys the enthusiastic applause following Jaime Martín and the LACO's performance of his Mariachitlán.

The great English critic and musicologist Donald Tovey described the Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 "Italian" as "one of Mendelssohn's most perfect works" and in a performance as smiling and celebratory as Jaime Martín and LACO delivered, who could argue? My only cavil was the omission of the first movement exposition repeat (why, when Mendelssohn took the trouble to write one of the longest lead-backs, all 23 measures of it, in the Classical symphonic repertoire?).

Mendelssohn at the time of
the composition of his
Italian Symphony.
Otherwise there was plenty to appreciate in the Symphony's scrupulously accented Allegro vivace first movement—its textures all the more brilliant and aerated by it not being taken too fast—and in the attention to dynamics and articulation of the cellos' and basses' steady groups of staccato eighth notes that underpin of much of the slow movement.

Though it is marked Con moto moderato, the minuet-like third movement was to my ears perhaps a bit too leisurely—its themes do come around a lot of times—but there was nothing but gain in the Presto Saltarello finale not being taken at quite the Derby-winner dash which some performances affect, but here still with all the élan and precision that one could desire.

Inevitably, such a celebratory evening had to have an encore, and in making his choice Jaime Martín completed the trio of Iberia-related pieces by turning to his native Spain for the Intermedio from El baile de Luis Alonso, a two-acter written in 1896 by the Seville-born Zarzuela composer Gerónimo Giménez (1854-1923). This seems to be his only piece with any concert or recording presence, at least outside Spain, and its cheery, castanets-driven five minutes, played and conducted with swagger and panache, made a good advertisement for seeking out more music by Giménez.

Jaime Martín and Andrew Shulman play Telemann's Cunando.

Before the "official" encore, however, there had been an extra item. In response to a specific request from the principal sponsors, who were seated in the front row, Señor Martín laid down the baton and took up his flute (before his conducting career he had for many years been a distinguished orchestra principal and solo flautist) for a performance of the brief and touching third movement Cunando from Telemann's Sonate metodiche No. 3 in E minor, TWV 41:e2

 As anyone who has experienced, say, Yo Yo Ma's accounts of the Bach solo Cello Suites at the Proms in London's vast Royal Albert Hall, there is a unique magic to chamber music performed in a very large auditorium, and here in Disney's cavernous expanses the sound of Señor Martín's flute had a remote and ineffable purity that seemed to make the entire audience catch and hold its collective breath for the two-and-a-half minutes or so, with Mr. Shulman's cello etching in the accompanying continuo role with the utmost delicacy. Memorable indeed. 


Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, Walt Disney Hall, Saturday, June 26, 2021, 7 p.m.
Photos: The performance: Greg Grudt/Mathew Imaging; Ginastera: Wikimedia Commons; Mendelssohn: pencil drawing by Eduard Bendemann, c 1833, Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, June 11, 2021

POP pops back with a rare Bizet opera—and ostriches

l-r: Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez (Euphemia), Scott Levin (Andronico), Ben Lowe (Don Procopio), Armando Contreras (Ernesto), Rachel Policar (Bettina), Jon Lee Keenan (Odoardo).

Bizet's "Don Procopio", Pacific Opera Project, Heritage Square Museum,
Los Angeles

The first, and last, thing to be said about Pacific Opera Project's production of Bizet's early opera buffa, Don Procopio, is that this propulsively energized, inventively staged and lit, virtuosically sung, and endearingly silly take on what was only Bizet's second completed opera (out of no fewer than 15, some of them never completed) was the perfect antidote to the long months of Covid-induced live-performance drought—at least for the capacity audience that whistled and cheered its enthusiasm from the greensward centered amongst the Heritage Square Museum's collection of historic buildings.

Georges Bizet (1838-1875) was something of a youthful prodigy, and won the prestigious Grande Prix de Rome at the age of only 18. Once established in Rome for his three-year stay, he wrote home that, to fulfil the prize's composition requirement, he had settled on an "Italian farce in the manner of [Donizetti's] Don Pasquale" using a libretto by one Carlo Cambiaggio that he found in one of Rome's used bookstores. Bizet proceeded to work on and complete the score of Don Procopio over the winter of 1858-59, but it was never performed in his lifetime, and only published in 1905 in a version edited by Charles Malherbe.

Bizet at the time of his
Prix de Rome win.
Imitation Donizetti or Rossini Don Procopio may be, but Bizet uses their tropes skillfully to create a score that is well-proportioned, concise, and tuneful, and in which aspects of his own mature style begin to be glimpsed in places. His only previous opera, written before he won the Prix de Rome, was a one-acter entitled Doctor Miracle, but whereas that begins with a formal, self-contained overture, when he came to Don Procopio Bizet chose to launch straight into the first of its two shortish acts (run together, in POP's production, as a single 90-minute span) with an ebullient ensemble of chorus and soloists that immediately lays out the "dramatic" situation.

The Cambiaggio libretto had an already well-worn and rather ageist plot, in which one old miser, Don Andronico, schemes to marry his niece Bettina to another, Don Procopio, on the grounds that a young spouse would be a spendthrift. But Bettina is already in love, unsurprisingly, with young Odoardo and, aided by aunt Eusebia and brother Ernesto, contrives to thwart the oldies' plans.

Euphemia and Andronico argue.
POP Artistic Director Josh Shaw drew inspiration for his production from the history of the Highland Park area around the Museum, which had included, back around the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, ostrich farming. Thus the setting, unspecified in Cambiaggio's original, became Andronico's Ostrich Farm and much hilarity ensued, as when the chorus (Bizet's full forces reduced to just four: Matt Welch, Rachel Freed, William Grundler, and Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt) in due course not only sang but also impersonated both dancing ostriches and humans astride ostriches, thanks to quick-change costuming.

There was not a weak link amongst the cast, most of whom were stalwarts of previous POP productions. Surely much sprightlier than the part was originally conceived, the Andronico of Scott Levin (bass-baritone) and Euphemia (Jessica Gonzalez-Rodriguez, mezzo-soprano) nimbly negotiated the shoals of syllables—against repeated staccato interruptions from the chorus—in Bizet's rapid-fire setting of their opening dispute about the marital fate of Bettina. She, in the person of Rachel Policar (soprano) resplendent in ostrich feather head-piece, immediately demonstrated herself to be, in her taxing opening aria railing against her fate, as equal to the threat as she was vocally secure.

Bettina bewails her fate.
Don Procopio himself was Ben Lowe (baritone), robust both in voice and appearance to an extent that rather undercut the part of frail old dodderer as written, but who cared? The fairly brief role of "romantic lead" Odoardo was taken by Jon Lee Keenan (tenor), whose radiant singing of the Serenade that opens Act Two (its haunting melody recycled by Bizet in The Fair Maid of Perth eight years later) just about overcame the effect of the character being dressed in a check suit of clownish loudness. To complete the cast, the Ernesto of Armando Contreras (baritone) gleefully joined in the torpedoing of the hapless Procopio. 

The entry on Bizet in the 1954 fifth edition of Grove's Dictionary notes that in his arrangement of the score for its publication, Malherbe "completely falsified it by adding [...] recitatives and an entr'acte in most inappropriate imitation of Bizet's later style[...]." 67 years on, later scholarship may or may not refute that academic finger-wagging but fake Bizet or not, POP included the entr'acte as a ballet pas de deux for two ostriches that culminated in a very sprightly-looking chick emerging from an egg discreetly laid, rear center-stage.

The ostrich pas de deux: William Grundler and Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt.

The chorus as chorus: l-r Matt Welch, Eleen Hsu-Wentlandt, Rachel Freed, William Grundler.

Edoardo and Bettina declare their
love, with onlookers.
As a whole, the performance was not quite perfect, part of the difficulty being that, even within the comedic framework, there's not the slightest dramatic tension—Procopio himself rapidly wants as much to be out of the situation as Bettina et al desire him gone. Musically Bizet compensates for this with some lovely writing for the would-be soulful romance between Bettina and Odoardo, but I felt that the production's laser-focus on the farcical somewhat undermined this.

Some of the solo singing was a little less than secure, perhaps with the need to keep the buffa ball constantly bouncing and bobbing being traded for exactness of pitch—and perhaps also due to the very small instrumental forces not being audible enough in the open-air setting to give the support that Bizet's normal theater orchestra would have provided. A bigger band would have added depth and richness throughout, which is not to say that Music Director Charlie Kim and his intrepid group of just four strings and two woodwind gave their part all the verve and commitment that could be desired.

Don Procopio menaced by particularly attentive ostrich (William Grundler).


In brief remarks before the performance began, Josh Shaw noted that the whole production had come together, from initial idea to realization on the temporary stage erected against the façade of the Museum's 1897 Lincoln Avenue Methodist Church, in just six weeks, and paid tribute to all who had made it possible. I for one hope that this quite astonishing achievement—Don Procopio's West Coast premiere, a mere 162 years late, be it noted—might eventually be augmented by a fuller-scaled indoor production, perhaps in a double-bill with Doctor Miracle...?


Pacific Opera Project, Heritage Square Museum, 8 p.m., Sunday, June 6, 2021.
Images: Production photos: Martha Benedict; Bizet: Courtesy KDFC. Cawston Ostrich Farm poster: eBay.

Thursday, June 10, 2021

Michael Chioldi Believes in the Power of Opera

Philip Newton

INTERVIEW: Michael Chioldi 

St. James Cathedral, Seattle 

Baritone Michael Chioldi is a singer’s singer. The New York City-based award-winning baritone and Pittsburgh, PA, native specializes in dramatic roles of Verdi, Puccini, and Strauss and has performed at most major US opera houses. Aside from performing at the Metropolitan Opera, Chioldi recently appeared at Gran Teatre del Liceu in Barcelona, Utah Opera, Austin Opera and Palm Beach Opera. 

This month, from June 25-27, Chioldi’s powerful rendering of the infamous villain Scarpia in Seattle Opera’s production of Puccini’s Tosca will stream online. Tosca is one of the most beloved operas of all time, and Chioldi has much to say about the role and others he has performed during his outstanding career.

Erica Miner: Congratulations on your Seattle Opera debut, Michael! We’ve been eagerly awaiting you! I believe it’s been a long time in coming.

Michael Chioldi: Thank you! Yes, several years ago, Speight (Jenkins, former SO general manager) offered me the role of Figaro in Rossini’s Barber of Seville but there was a conflict and it never happened. I didn’t really know Aidan (Lang, Jenkins’s successor), but Christina (Scheppelmann, current general manager) has been a big supporter of mine since my beginning days. She helped make my San Francisco Opera debut happen, and now I’m thrilled to be here for Scarpia.

EM: When did you know you wanted to be an opera singer?

MC: I always felt I had the performing bug, even in high school. My Italian-Austrian family, cultured though middle class, was musical. My brother and sister played piano and accordion, and I grew up playing guitar. The emphasis was on good food, good shoes, and music [Laughs]. I originally wanted to be a doctor, but I switched to music as an undergrad at West Virginia University. I was from the Pittsburgh area, a little coal mining town of a thousand or so, called Avonmore. It was fun growing up there, everyone knew everyone else. I wanted to get out of the small town, but I didn’t want to go too far from home, so I chose West Virginia U.

EM: How long did it take you to switch to music?

MC: The bug bit me early on. I auditioned for the voice studio at Virginia, but I didn’t know what to sing, so I sang the National Anthem [Sings]. Their mouths just dropped, and before it went any further, they said, “Go get the opera director.” He offered me the role of Sam in Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti. And I said no because I was so busy! [Laughs] But then I heard them practice the opera and I suddenly regretted saying no. Then, as fate would have it, the guy who had been offered the role had a family emergency and I was asked to do it. This time I said yes! In rehearsal I was just struck by everything about the opera, and about opera overall. I thought, if could do this for a living—well, it just hit me that it was what I really wanted to do. I finished undergrad and went to Yale for my masters. Then I got a phone call from Houston Grand Opera. They were looking for baritone. So, I went to Houston after my masters. There were some wonderful singers there—Ana Maria Martinez and Jill Grove among them. A very good class! I sang 10 roles in 2 years.

EM: That must have been amazing. What an experience.

MC: Yes! In 1995 I won competitions, including the Met National Council Auditions. My mom and dad got to see me on the Met stage in the winners’ concert. It was significant for me, since that was the last time I saw my dad. After that I went to Europe, came back here and did the regional circle, then became the go-to baritone at New York City Opera, doing 4 operas a season. From 1999 to 2009 I sang there full time and my repertoire changed as got older. I started out with Papageno, and other light roles, comprimario roles like Morales. Now I’m doing Verdi and more dramatic rep at bigger houses, here and in Europe. Macbeth, Rigoletto, Nabucco. It’s a singer’s dream, to start out with small, “baby” beginning baritone roles and graduate to Mozart, bel canto, and ultimately Verdi.

EM: Let’s talk about Seattle’s Tosca. I assume it’s been socially distanced. What has that been like?

Philip Newton

MC: As it’s been done thus far, we rehearsed and then filmed. We flew in, quarantined for the proper amount of time, and followed all the very strict protocols. We were tested every 3 days. Let me tell you, I was more than ready not to have that stick up my nose anymore! Then they broke down the process. We recorded with the orchestra in Benaroya Hall. What a beautiful hall. Such great acoustics.

EM: It is indeed. We love it.

MC: The orchestra was onstage, and the singers were at microphones socially distanced throughout the hall. After they mastered the recording, they piped it in while filming it at the historic St. James Cathedral in Seattle and we lip synched along with it. Believe me, 5 weeks was just enough time to do it. It was intense, really difficult.

EM: It does sound like a challenge. Was it filmed in color?

MC: Yes. In fact, it reminded me of some of the old movies of Tosca, like from the 50s.

EM: Is Scarpia one of your favorite roles?

MC: How can it not be. Not only is it amazing music, but it also has the best entrance of all of opera. Then you’re onstage for 30 minutes and you end Act 1 with the Te Deum. It’s one of the greatest grand moments in all of opera.

EM: And then there’s Act 2.

MC: Yes. Act 2 can be an act totally on its own.

EM: What are some of your other favorite roles?

MC: I love playing more complex roles, ones with different colors, that I can enjoy now that my voice is darker, bigger. I can play with those colors. Iago is one. I’ve sung 3 different productions of Otello. Rigoletto is fun to play. He’s like a Marvel Movies anti-hero. I consider myself a singer’s singer, but my voice is also caught up with acting.

EM: I imagine Rigoletto must lie really well in the voice.

MC: I enjoy Rigoletto. Singing it is definitely challenging. I think Verdi is the best composer for the baritone voice. It’s like he thought of himself as the baritone role in the operas he wrote. Germont in Traviata is a scene stealer. So are Ford and Falstaff, and other baritone title characters.

EM: How about Simon Boccanegra?

MC: I can’t wait to do Boccanegra. I just did Luisa Miller. Though it’s not one of the most recognizable operas, I loved doing it.

EM: You’ve also premiered some operas—the role of Man in Anthony Brandt’s The Birth of Something comes to mind—in fact, you’ve done a fair amount of contemporary opera.

MC: In the earlier days of my career, I was well known for modern music, as a quick learner and good musician. At one time I was getting pieces in the mail from composers almost every day asking if I would do them. At one point I had to choose if I would stick with that or go with the more traditional rep. I always knew I wanted to do Verdi, whereas the modern music, with its disjunct melodies, can be taxing on the voice. That said, I did have to be versatile. When I teach, I tell my students to be as versatile as possible, especially these days. Overall, I think the day of the big opera career may largely be over. It’s more a “gig” life now. New operas keep people coming, which is great. It’s important to do what must be done to keep the art form alive. But there has to be a balance.
Peter Konerko

EM: I was fascinated to read that you sang in Kurt Weill’s The Protagonist.

MC: I loved that opera. We did it at Santa Fe. It was such a magical summer. I sang in the Greek chorus, part of a troop of 3 players that appeared all throughout the opera. It was really tiring. They had to hide oxygen tanks in various places for the singers! I adore Kurt Weill; he takes you right back to the 1920s. Very cinematic.

EM: How do you feel about singing in English? A number of singers I’ve interviewed have said it’s quite difficult.

MC: Yes, it can be taxing, but in a different way from other languages.

EM: You had a chance to sing the infrequently performed Debussy & Poe: Fall of the House of Usher & Devil in the Belfry. What was that like?

MC: That was a really interesting project in New York City, which was pieced together. Very intimate, jazzy, bluesy, sexy and heady. Kind of the polar opposite of Verdi grand opera. I got to access the more tender parts of my instrument and my acting. I wish I could do more of that. In a museum setting, it made perfect sense. I also got to do The Andrée Expedition, a song cycle by Dominic Argento about a hot air balloon trip to the North Pole, in a marble museum in Vermont. That was wonderful, masterful. I’m now developing it as a one man show. I had written to Argento about it, and he was so excited at the idea. He wrote me an amazing letter back, which I’m going to include in the show.

EM: What’s coming up next for you?

MC: This August in Arizona, I’m doing a workshop for a one-man show. I won grant to develop it with 3-D immersive technology.

EM: That sounds revolutionary.

MC: Then in September, Rigoletto with New York City Opera in upstate New York and Bryant Park in the city. I’m going back to my hometown of Pittsburgh to give a solo recital at the beautiful Carnegie Music Hall in the Museum of Fine Arts. I’ve never sung there and it’s my first time back.

EM: The Prodigal Son returns.

MC: [Laughs] Then back to Seattle for la Bohème later that month.

EM: You’re definitely showing your love for opera in a big way.

MC: Opera is vital to the fabric of society. It touches people in a different way than any other art form. The power of the acoustic voice can touch people in a different way.

EM: Your commitment to that is positively inspiring. Thanks so much, Michael, for sharing your insights. 

Streaming information can be found at: https://www.seattleopera.org/on-stage/2021-tosca/


Photo credits: Philip Newton, Peter Konerko
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]