Monday, October 18, 2021

Stephen Powell Sings to Planet Earth

Shannon Finney

CD REVIEW: Stephen Powell 


Vocal artists who accompany themselves on the piano are relatively rare in the classical world as compared to the non-classical world. In his latest CD release on Acis, Why Do the Nations, Grammy-nominated baritone Stephen Powell demonstrates that this can be accomplished in the classical genre—perhaps even for the first time in history. It helps, of course, to have one of the most superb baritone voices on the planet. That splendid voice remains Powell’s strong suit in this endeavor.

Powell’s raison d’être for the album containing 27 art songs from 11 nations is to “speak to the universal themes that can heal a broken world: love and longing, peace and prosperity.” The baritone seeks to demonstrate that these themes can unite the world’s peoples across traditional boundaries of nation, race, sex, and gender. This is a tall order, but Powell delivers on his promise with a stunning array of international airs that please the ear and capture the imagination.

Puccini is most familiar to music aficionados as an opera composer, but the two chosen tracks, Morire (“To Die”) and Terra e Mare (“Earth and Sea”) give the composer’s work a different perspective. From the first words, Powell’s lush, ravishing voice comes across in its finest sheen. He then challenges himself further by ending on high notes in the upper register: a difficult feat.

Not to be outdone in the Italian vein, Verdi adds his greatness in the lilting Il Poveretto (“The Poor Little Man”) and La Seduzione (“The Seduction”). Powell shows his operatic chops to advantage in both, evoking pity for the forgotten soldier as well as for the betrayed, innocent young girl.

In Ravel’s Chanson à Boire from Don Quichotte à Dulcinée, Fauré’s Mandoline and Paladilhe’s Petits Enfants, Powell creates the subtleties and liveliness of the French tradition. Quichotte’s declaration, Je bois à toi! (I drink to you!) shows a youthful energy that can convince any ideal woman of his ardor, even coming from an old man. He then beautifully conveys tenderness and delicacy: of that instrument of serenaders, the mandolin, and in his tribute to the gifts that newborn infants give to the world.

Shannon Finney

Germany is well represented in the mix. Powell portrays profound emotion in Richard Strauss’s Mahlerian Ich Trage Meine Minne (“I Carry My Love”). This touching refrain merges exquisitely with strains of famous art song creators Schubert—the universal favorite Die Forelle (“The Trout”)—the Brahms paean to love, Mein Liebe ist Grün (“My Love is Green”) and Hugo Wolf ‘s Auch Kleine Dinge (“Even Small Things”). All were rendered with true loving affection

From Spain, De Falla’s familiar, swingy El Paño Moruno (“The Moorish Cloth”) displayed Powell’s virtuosity both vocally and pianistically. The baritone floated the high tones charmingly in Obradors’ ¿Corazón Porqué Pasáis? (Heart, Why Do You Spend?)

Russian art song was embodied in arias from two of its most beloved late Romantic composers, Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff: respectively, Nochi Bezumnyye (“Nights of Frenzy”) and Vesenniye Vody (“Spring Waters”). Both powerful songs demand feverish, unbridled urgency. Powell was up to the challenge, and the difficult high notes were rendered with full-out passion.

Outside of the Continent, Britten’s The Brisk Young Widow and Michael Head’s Money, O! were sung briskly, combining satirical flair and lyricism. 

In addition to the above, Powell shows his versatility with an unusual mix of less frequently heard songs from China, Japan, and Korea, ending the selections with a satisfying mixture of music by American composers Charles Ives, Samuel Barber, and Aaron Copland. The latter’s Zion’s Walls packs a punch with its military declamation. Likewise, Barber’s I Hear an Army asks a hard question, “Why have you left me alone?”—perhaps our planet’s cry as to what we have perpetrated on her. 

Powell ends the entire collection boldly and powerfully, with a strong, dissonant statement from Ives in his Scriabin-like Majority: “The Masses are singing, Whence comes the Art of the World! The Masses are yearning, Whence comes the hope of the World!” 

The overall message Powell so compellingly communicates in this stunning collection shows that in the end, the ancient refrain of music’s universality holds true even in today’s troubled world. If Why Do the Nations is as widely disseminated and carefully listened to as it deserves to be, there may be hope for our planet after all.

Recording details: Acis APLS51200 

Producer: Geoffrey Silver. Engineer: Kevin Bourassa

Recorded 2021, Blue House, Kensington, MD USA 

Ken Yanigasawa


Photo credits: Stephen Powell, Shannon Finney, Ken Yanigasawa
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Wednesday, October 13, 2021

A Quartet of Beethoven Piano Sonatas

Ory Shihor plays Beethoven at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.


"Beethoven: Darkness to Light", Ory Shihor, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts

This recital by the Israeli-American pianist Ory Shihor of four Beethoven piano sonatas (two early-ish, one middle-period, one late-ish, but not in that order) was predicated upon what I guess the movie industry would call a "high concept" idea: in the words of the pre-concert publicity, "Within each of the evening's four works, Beethoven counteracts an inevitable darkness with luminous light. Shihor is presenting these sonatas in pairs—a celebrated work with a lesser known one—further accentuating this metaphoric and musical chasm." 

Fears that exaggerated expressive point-making might ensue were rapidly shown to be groundless. All four performances were clear, clean, and direct, with plenty of virtuosity when required, and Mr. Shihor's way of following each movement of every sonata attacca upon its predecessor, even when Beethoven doesn't actually ask for it (as in several cases here), further bonded each performance into a tight-knit expressive whole, as well as torpedoing any audience inclination toward clapping between movements.

Beethoven in 1801, around the
time of the composition of the
Piano Sonatas Nos. 12 and 14.
In addition, he requested no applause between the sonatas in each pair, and thus the calm, almost off-hand conclusion to the second of the Sonata No. 27 in E minor, Op. 90's two movements segued, with not much more than a silent breath-pause, into the familiar opening of the "Moonlight", Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27 No. 2. Similarly, and just as effectively, the deceptively tentative opening to the great "Appassionata" Sonata No. 23 in F minor Op. 57 stole in on the heels of the almost gnomically brief rondo finale to the Sonata No. 12 in A-flat major Op. 26

The "Moonlight" was particularly successful: Mr. Shihor's flowing tempo for the familiar opening Adagio sostenuto led naturally via the marked attacca subito into a fairly relaxed account of the brief .central Allegretto, instead of the wake-up jolt that more indulgent gazings at the moonlight engender in some performances. The Presto agitato finale, quite lengthy with its big repeat in place, had all the necessary voltage, making the total effect of this "Sonata quasi una Fantasia"—as the first edition, published soon after the work's composition, heads it—more like a work in two equal halves than in three separate movements.

But how far did these four works, in these juxtapositions, justify the "darkness and light" dichotomy or, conversely, did the concept illuminate them, and thus reveal something of Beethoven's creative wellsprings? As an introduction to the concert, there had been a half-hour conversation between Mr. Shihor and Classical KUSC's Brian Lauritzen, with additional contributions from Lucas Sha, a piano student and colleague of Mr. Shihor.

This opportunity to delve into how the "darkness and light" duality might be observed and felt in these particular sonatas was, I felt, something of a missed one. Mr. Shihor had gone back to Beethoven's manuscripts in preparation for the concert, and noted the ambiguity of his dynamic markings, but instead of illustrations from the keyboard, which would have been welcome, the conversation veered off into entertaining but not altogether relevant Beethovenian anecdotes—like the source of the stains on the "Appassionata" manuscript.

Beethoven in 1815, the year after the
composition of the Piano Sonata No. 27.
For me, abstract concepts like "darkness" and "light" don't really fit with Beethoven as we know him, unlike some aspects of, say, Bruckner's and Sibelius's music. Beethoven's giant personality is so immediate and omnipresent that what we take from his music are all aspects of a human response. The "Moonlight" nickname wasn't Beethoven's, but one might see this later Romantic epithet in the light of his own title to the first movement of the "Pastoral" symphony — "Awakening of cheerful feelings on arrival in the countryside" — a subjective human reaction, not an abstract description.

So taking the "darkness and light" dichotomy in terms of Beethoven's own shifting moods, the four sonatas in this recital were certainly revealing: sometimes suddenly, often transitorily, and even contradictorily, as in the first movement of Sonata No. 27, whose lengthy marking Mit Lebhaftigkeit und durchaus mit Empfindung und Ausdruck (With liveliness and with feeling and expression throughout) seems almost deliberately perverse, given that shades, doubts, and hesitancies are baked into the music—and were faithfully conveyed in Mr. Shihor's performance.

Sonata No. 12 is sometimes nicknamed "Funeral March" on account of its Maestoso andante third movement's heading "Marcia funebre sulla morte d'un eroe." Whether or not this can be heard as a sort of "dry run" for the "Eroica" funeral march, it is shot through with what seems personal anguish and bitterness rather than, say, the sort of stately ceremonial you get in Berlioz' Grande Symphonie Funèbre et Triomphale. Mr. Shihor again gave this aspect full value—accentuated by the penetrating "ping" of his Yamaha piano's upper register.

The final page of the "Appassionata" manuscript, with water stains from the rainstorm during which Beethoven angrily departed from his patron Prince Lichnowsky's estate, following an altercation over his refusal to play for the Prince's French military guests.

As for the "Appassionata"'s tremendous expressive gamut, from alternate musing and high energy in the first movement to what feels like rage, even hysteria, in the finale, Mr. Shihor once more had its full measure, though by the end his articulation was showing signs of the toll of playing so much demanding and many-sided music more or less continuously, and from memory. One probably shouldn't, therefore, complain about his omission of Beethoven's rare second-half repeat in that finale.

All-in-all, this recital was something of a triumph in performance terms, even with those doubts about its conceptual basis. And in these days, when even music as great as this is often treated as therapeutic aural wallpaper, a concert designed to make us actually think is a treasurable rarity...


Bram Goldsmith Theater, Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts, Beverly Hills, 7.30pm, Thursday, October 7, 2021. 
Images: The performance: Lawrence K. Ho; Beethoven portraits: Wikimedia Commons; "Appassionata" manuscript: IMSLP.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Met Opera Concertmaster Raymond Gniewek: A Remembrance

TRIBUTE: Raymond Gniewek

Metropolitan Opera, New York City

The loss of a much loved, respected musical icon, no matter at what age, is always a sad event. For those musicians who knew and worked with Raymond Gniewek, the news of his passing, just short of his 90th birthday, evokes much more than respect. It calls to mind admiration, appreciation, and untold reverence. 

My entire life as a Met Orchestra violinist for 21 years centered around our incomparable concertmaster, Ray Gniewek. I will be forever thankful to have found in him such an extraordinary mentor. Memories of what it meant to work so closely with Ray in the first violin section of the Met Orchestra keep flooding back as I try to process the passing of this exquisite musician and wonderful person, whose loss I feel so deeply. Ray will always be in my heart. I envision him in violinists’ heaven, playing his solos like no one else can. 

Ray often talked to us of his background, of his violin studies with the great Joseph Knitzer at the Eastman School of Music. He never made a big deal about the fact that he also had been accepted at MIT, which just added to his exceptional standing in our eyes. At the age of 25, he was the youngest concertmaster ever to be appointed at the Met. In his 43 years in the position, he never ceased to take that colossal responsibility seriously. That, in of itself, is both impressive and astonishing. 

The Met, particularly its violinists, have lost a great guide and friend in Ray: a leader above and beyond what I could ever have imagined. He was our guiding light in the first violin section; so centered, so focused. A fine violinist and unexcelled concertmaster, Ray never, never missed. He was our rock. We could never lose our way with Ray at the helm. And his solos, especially in the fiendishly difficult Strauss operas, were incomparable. The sound he produced was exquisite, the technique flawless, and the overall musicianship striking.

It was a humbling experience to watch Ray in action. Even when he wasn’t playing his amazing solos, he was in the pit, devotedly practicing operas he knew inside out, always striving for perfection in his performance. As an example, Act 2 of Verdi’s Un Ballo in Maschera opens with a difficult passage divided in octaves, between each player on a stand, the upper octave very high in the register. Ray would practice playing both octaves of the passage simultaneously! It was mind-blowing. And we would just watch, listen, and learn, marveling at his expertise and the ease with which he executed the excerpt. That was Ray Gniewek.

There were also moments of levity. Often, during rehearsals for Verdi’s Aida, the Act 3 tenor’s “O Re, pei sacri numi” (“Oh King, for the sacred gods”) evoked smiles from music director James Levine, who would turn to Ray, beaming, and mime the words, “Oh Ray!” We would all smile in turn, knowing how apt the quote was: Ray was the absolute King of the orchestra, in every way.

But Ray also never faltered in his encouragement to us violinists to be the very best; he was a shining example of what we could aspire to. Even before I joined the Met Orchestra, I used to watch his performances from the Standing Room section in the uppermost reaches of the Family Circle. His playing was so stunning, so elegant, that it communicated hugely to me, even from that enormous distance. 

Imagine how thrilled I was when I eventually found myself playing in the orchestra pit, able to observe him from up close, benefiting from his outstanding leadership. It was an opportunity and an experience I wouldn’t trade for anything. I remember numerous times when the rotation placed me on the stand right behind him. My stand partner forewarned me: I must play impeccably; Ray had eyes in the back of his head, and his finely tuned ears would detect the slightest flaw. In fact, I discovered, he had an uncanny ability to discern whatever was going on, even as far as the last player at the back of the section. It was that unique perspicacity that created such excellence in the Met’s first violin section.

Met Orchestra members Laurence Glazener, Judith Yanchus, Midhat Serbagi; with Judith Blegen and Raymond Gniewek. Photo credit: Raymond Gniewek 

The response and outpouring of emotion on social media about Ray’s passing have been heartwarming:

“Raymond Gniewek's name has been a hallmark for the excellence of the Met Orchestra's artistry and support of thousands of Met artists.” “He, more than any other player, was responsible for the Met orchestra moving into the ranks of the greatest orchestras in the world.” “As a concertmaster he was every conductor’s dream.” “Best concert master ever!” “Smart, secure—so secure—and unassuming” “Truly a legend.” “Incredible violinist and a great man.” “A consummate artist.”

In his final solo appearance at Carnegie Hall, Ray’s playing of the “Meditation” from Massenet’s Thaïs was even more gorgeous than in the version we had performed in the opera house. The audience response was overwhelming—and he brought his orchestra colleagues to tears.

The world of the Met, and the world in general, will not be the same without Ray. I will always miss him, but I also will celebrate the incalculable gifts that he so generously gave to me, both musically and personally. 

Former Maestro Levine once was quoted saying, “The single luckiest things that happened to me since I have been at the Met is that Ray Gniewek was the concertmaster.”

That holds true for every one of us in the orchestra. May his memory be a blessing always.


Photo credits: Laurence Glazener, Raymond Gniewek, public domain
Erica can be reached at: [email protected]

Friday, October 1, 2021

Expanding the Cello Quintet Repertoire

Sakura Cello Quintet: l-r Peter Myers, Stella Cho, Benjamin Lash, Michael Kaufman, Yoshida Masuka (in this performance Ben Solomonow stood in for Mr. Masuka).


Sakura Cello Quintet, South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College

But, you may well ask, what cello quintet repertoire? Opening its 2021-2022 season, the SBCMS's first live concert with audience for more than a year-and-a-half might at first glance have seemed a lightweight affair, a toe in the water or dip in the shallow end, if you will— fairly short in total duration and entirely comprising arrangements of brief pieces, some well-known and some less so.

Ben Solomonow.
However, in a program for an unfamiliar, even unlikely, instrumental line-up, played by an ensemble fresh I think to the SBCMS performers' roster, the Sakura Cello Quintet (Peter Myers, Stella Cho, Benjamin Lash, and Michael Kaufman, with Ben Solomonow standing in for the unavoidably absent Yushida Masuka) so skillfully reworked vocal and instrumental works ranging from the early 17th to the late 20th centuries that it could fairly be taken to signal a notable expansion of works available to this medium of five cellos—as indeed may be confirmed by the group's own website.

They opened with a group of four Renaissance items, three Tudor and one Spanish, and in the intimate but rich acoustic of LA Harbor College's Music Room, the cellos' wide timbral spectrum imparted an organ-like depth and breadth to the stately harmonies of Orlando Gibbons' a cappella motet The Silver Swan, in an unattributed arrangement. The pace picked up with John Dowland's M. George Whitehead his Almand, and grew yet more sprightly in his The Earle of Essex Galliard, both from Dowland's great set of five-part instrumental pieces entitled Lachrimæ, published in 1604.

Carlo Gesualdo.
But an almost shocking corrective to this amiable courtliness came with the tortuous harmonies and whiplash pace and mood switches of Gesualdo's madrigal Moro, Lasso, al mio duolo (I die, alas, in my suffering). On five cellos this was no less expressive of grief (and, perhaps, guilt, as Sakura member Peter Myers implied in his brief introductory reference to Gesualdo's murder in 1590 of his wife and her lover) than as sung in the original, published in Gesualdo's sixth book of madrigals in 1611.

One can hardly imagine a starker change of style and content than the Ritual Fire Dance from Falla's ballet El amor brujo (Love the magician), arranged by Mr. Myers. The opening tremolando buzz on lower strings from the orchestral original translated perfectly, as one might have expected, to four cellos; what was more surprising was how effective the ensuing insidious oboe tune sounded in the husky high treble of the remaining instrument. 

Brahms (l) and Joachim (r).
So far, so effective, but I did feel some expressive loss in Mr. Myers' arrangement of Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, though that may have been due to the performance's diminution of the dynamic range familiar from Rachmaninoff's own version for voice and orchestra. As for the scherzo that Brahms contributed to the portmanteau F-A-E Violin Sonata composed in 1853 for Joseph Joachim (will we ever get a chance to hear the complete work, with Albert Dietrich's fine first movement as well as Brahms' scherzo and Schumann's intermezzo and finale?), Brahms might have blinked a bit at the positively pachydermian gruffness of his opening theme transferred from violin/piano to five cellos—but then again, maybe he wouldn't...

This arrangement was by Sakura's Michael Kaufman, who was also responsible for the quite lovely version of Dvořák's Silent Woods, Op. 68 No. 5 that opened the concert's second half. Like the Vocalise this exists in many guises, much the most familiar being the one made by Dvořák himself for cello and small orchestra from his four-hands piano original. Without scores to hand it was impossible to be sure, but presumably Mr. Kaufman's arrangement reproduced pretty much Dvořák's solo cello part, in this performance democratically shared between the players.

Again a major change of pace came with Somewhere from West Side Story, the evanescent harmonies from which Bernstein's unforgettable melody is suspended being eloquently realized in the arrangement by Simon Parkin (not a Sakura member). Then smack in arrived Mambo, complete with the familiar shouts!

Chick Corea.
Perhaps the most surprising, and audacious, arrangement of all was that by Mr. Myers of Brahms' Intermezzo in E-flat major, the first of three written and published as his Op. 117 in 1892, five years before his death. Audacious, because the personal character of Brahms' late piano works has always seemed intimately, and inextricably, involved with the piano and its timbres. Well, five cellos enhanced, if anything, this piece's musing, prayerful quality—an addition indeed to their repertoire. I wonder whether the other Intermezzi would lend themselves as well?

Finally, there was Spain, by Chick Corea. To me, any intrinsic quality the piece had leant heavily on the fragments of Rodrigo's Concierto de Aranjuez adagio that form an introduction to what seemed an elaboration of generic Spanishisms—but then, jazz remains pretty much a closed book to me. Undeniably, though, Peter Myers' arrangement and Sakura's performance made the most of it, kicking off SBCMS's new season with panache and swirl. Welcome back! 


South Bay Chamber Music Society, Los Angeles Harbor College, 8pm, Friday, September 24, 2021.
Images: Sakura Cello Quintet: Artists' website; Ben Solomonow:; Composers: Wikimedia Commons. 

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