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Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, since 2007. All written content © 2014 by Paul Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link.

Saturday, July 30, 2011

Opera Review: Into the Void

Selma Jezková bows at Lincoln Center Festival
Ylva Kihlberg (right) sings the title role in Selma Jezková.
Photo by Miklos Szabo.
Friday night at the Rose Theater featured the U.S. premiere of Selma Jezková, a new opera by contemporary composer Poul Ruders. Based on the Lars von Trier film Dancer in the Dark, this is a lean, powerful one-act opera that condenses its grim source material into a parable greed, grief and fear.


Mr. Ruders' opera owes some debt to Alban Berg's Wozzeck and Leoš Janáček's Kat'a Kabanova, works that illustrate the grim reality of ordinary people suffering in circumstances beyond their control. In this case, the victim is Selma, (soprano Ylva Kihlberg) a Czech factory worker struggling with hereditary blindness, and saving money for an operation for her son Gene, so he will not suffer the same fate.

Mounted on a unit set and told as a flashback from Selma's funeral, the opera opened with a tableau of heart-breaking power. Before the orchestra starts, Selma lay in a coffin in a burned-out church filled with candles. Her son Gene Carl Philip Levin) approached the coffin and slowly lifted his mother out, with infinite tenderness. Then the music started, and Selma rose slowly from her resting-place for one last rapproachment with her son, to try to make him understand where she had gone wrong and to apologize for her mistakes.


The music is written in a flexible idiom, drawing together atonality, bitonality and minimalist ideas to create a tightly woven carpet of sound. The score made some unusual choices: grim, atonal chords for piano, tuba, and bass saxophone, alternating with joyful melodies derived from the musicals that are the only illumination in Selma's rapidly darkening world. In its later pages, Mr. Ruders opens major-chord progressions, as Selma resigns herself to the hangman's noose in her effort to save Gene's eyesight. The final scene is simple, yet devastating in its impact.

Ms. Kihlberg was a magnetic, heart-tugging presence in the title role, a character created for the film by Icelandic singer Björk. Under Michael Schønwandt's skilled baton, Ms. Kihlberg seduced the listener, leading the audience in Selma's downward spiral. The long, arching phrases sung by her character recall the writing of Richard Strauss, and the sheer animal panic as she is marched to the scaffold recalled the frantic fate of a certain Puccini heroine. This was a devastating performance combined with difficult physical acting, particularly in the heart-stopping stunt of Selma's execution.


The tightly constructed production by Kasper Holten made use of a unit set, as the dark church transformed into a factory, a tenement, and a courtroom, the whole in blacks and sepias suited to the grim tone. A projected stained glass window toward the back gave no color, and eventually transformed into a blinking, searching eye--either a metaphor for the crushing wheels of justice or for the onset of Selma's blindness.

This dark world was populated with a strong supporting cast. Tenor Gert Hennings-Jensen brought a peacock strut to the role of the district attorney, recalling another nightmarish prosecutor in Pink Floyd's The Wall. Not surprisingly, he doubled as the executioner. Baritone Palle Knudsen was the picture of venality as Bill, (Selma's landlord) who is the willing, complicit victim in his own murder. Mezzo-soprano Hanne Fischer cut a sympathetic figure as Kathy, a co-worker at the textile plant. And Mr. Levin stayed onstage throughout, a mute witness to his mother's tragedy who was only heard from when it was too late.

Friday, July 29, 2011

Concert Review: Broadway At Last

Nielsen and Stravinsky mark RDO's overdue debut
Royal Danish Orchestra's Music Director Michael Schønwandt.
The art of programming symphony concerts is a tricky one. Finding the links between disparate pieces, by different composers, in different genres is hard. And some music directors settle for the fact that the two or three scheduled works are from the same historic period, or refer to the same book, or something equally esoteric.

Michael Schønwandt, music director of the Royal Danish Orchestra, displayed his mastery of this art on Thursday night, as the RDO made its long-awaited debut at Alice Tully Hall as part of this summer's Lincoln Center Festival. The Copenhagen-based orchestra was founded in 1448, and ranks as Europe's oldest performing orchestra. For this concert, Mr. Schønwandt offered a pairing of works by Carl Nielsen and Igor Stravinsky.

This skillfully chosen program made the connection readily apparent. The Russian and the Dane were innovative orchestrators, skilled in the use of rhythm. Both sprinkled their compositions with welcome doses of humor. That was evident in Nielsen's brief Pan and Syrinx, a tone poem that pushes the woodwinds of the orchestra to the fore in an entertaining dialogue. Exceptional playing from the clarinet, English horn and bassoon was the order of the day, underpinned by a swift current of harmonies in the strings.

The clarinet moved to the front of the stage for the next work, Nielsen's Clarinet Concerto with RDO principal John Kruse. Mr. Kruse demonstrated the full expressive range of his instrument in the difficult solo part. He drew different voices from the clarinet, from a series of sad, minor-key groans to the instrument's more familiar, sunny register, racing up and down the instrument's range to thrilling effect.

The 27-minute single-movement work offered considerable challenge, including a long solo cadenza that spiralled gracefully downward before being caught on an updraft of orchestral sound. The piece opens with a fugal, almost baroque feel. Nielsen then veers into modern territory, developing a long conversation between soloist and orchestra.


The concert concluded with Pulcinella, a work firmly in the neo-classical mode that defines the middle period of Stravinsky's career. Although the dance movements and allegros recall the writing of Handel and Mozart, Stravinsky throws the occasional orchestral curve-ball at the listener. He has the musicians stop on a dime, or play an ostinato rhythm that is characteristically Russian underneath the instrumental filigree.

Mr. Schønwandt conducted with flair, lip-synching along as he directed the three singers in their solo arias and brief ensembles. Mezzo Tuva Semmingsen brought intelligence and pointed meaning to her arias. Tenor Peter Lodahl sang with sweet, plaintive tone. Baritone Jochen Kupfer sang Stravinsky's bass part with a dark, warm tone that fit beautifully with the other two soloists.

As Pulcinella develops, more and more of Stravinsky's unique voice comes through. Most notable: the emphatic trombone solo in the latter third of the work that recalls the early recordings of New Orleans jazzman Kid Ory. This rambunctious part was a breath of fresh air, played with gusto by soloist Torbjørn Kroon. As the work concluded with another trio and a fast Allegro, the orchestra's long-overdue New York debut came to a triumphant close.

"Ghost" Busting

New Director May Pull Valhalla Out of the Fire
Kaboom! Director Michael Bay and his ideas for Götterdämmerung
We're about two months away from the opening of the Metropolitan Opera season, and three months away from the premiere of Siegfried, the third part of the company's new Ring cycle designed and directed by Robert Lepage.

Or is it?

According to an item on parterre box, the Canadian director is considering bringing in a "ghost director" to work on Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, the last two operas in the massive mythological cycle. No information was given on who this might be--whether it's an assistant director from the house or another big-name professional.

Mr. Lepage's Ring has met with mixed reviews for the first two installments. Das Rheingold was stagey and beset with blocking problems, including a conspicuous pair of non-threatening Giants.


Die Walküre went off smoothly, despite an Act I set that looked shipped in from IKEA and the bizarre decision to have a double play Brunnhilde as she slept on top of her mountain. Speculation: this arrangement could have been made to ensure extra rehearsals for Deborah Voigt's summer run of Annie Get Your Gun at the Glimmerglass Festival.

Since we here at Superconductor have no information beyond the parterre snippet, the time has come to engage in rabid speculation as to who this "ghost director" might be. Here's five candidates:

Herbert von Karajan: Sure, he's dead. But the former Austrian conductor would probably like finish his incomplete cycle at the opera house from the 1970s. Could the spirit of von Karajan descend from the heavens above Austria and lead an inspired Götterdämmerung? Barring that, could he direct?


Julie Taymor: The trials and tribulations of the U2-written musical Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark were one reason the Met's technological issues with the Ring didn't hold the headlines. Ms. Taymor might return to the scene of her triumphant Die Zauberflöte. Her dragon is better-looking anyway.

Otto Schenk: The people's choice! Herr Schenk directed the company's wildly successful staging of the Ring that held the boards at the Met for 20 years. I'm sure that there's a container somewhere in New Jersey that still has the old sets, and that they can be whipped back into shape for the complete cycles planned for next Spring. But that would make too much sense.

Stephen Wadsworth: He's directed the Ring in Seattle. Last year, he took just six weeks to stage the Met's new Boris Godunov after German director Peter Stein cancelled in mid-July. The most likely candidate on this list.

Michael Bay: The Hollywood filmmaker understands the manufacture of "entertainment" where huge, clanking machinery takes higher priority than the safety of performers, and heart-warming drama is replaced by soulless technology and ginned-up computer-generated special effects. The man who gave us Transformers, Revenge of the Fallen and Dark of the Moon is the guy they should have hired in the first place.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Bland Beyond Belief

The original album cover of
The Legend of the Invisible City of Kitezh.
© Universal Music Group
The Age of the Nondescript Megabox
So I finally knuckled under to temptation and got myself one of the new boxed sets of opera re-issues that have come out from the good folks at Universal Classics.

The box is from the Mariinsky Opera Orchestra under the baton of Valery Gergiev: a set of five operas by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. I remember the release of these sets on the now defunct Philips label, beautifully packaged in the Mariinsky's trademark eggshell blue, with baroque, painted covers or exotic photographs of the artists.

Now the CDs come in envelopes (which is good) but they're bundled in a cheap black cardboard box with a stock photo of the composer, some kind of painting behind it, and the clever new title: "5 Operas".

5 Operas? Did the marketing department get paid for that one?


Rimsky (best known in the West for his tone poem Scheherezade) was a master colorist, an expert at infusing his orchestrations with the smoky tang of Russian folktales. He is an important opera composer, and stands as the bridge between his friend Mussorgsky (a fellow member of the informal group of composers known as the "Russian Five" or the "Mighty Handful") and his pupil, Igor Stravinsky.

Yeah. This is a much better title.
Especially the number "5" instead of "Five."
These are wonderful recordings, essential listening if you want to take your interest in Russian opera beyond Tchaikovky and Boris Godunov.. These are fairy tales come to life. Sadko is a series of gorgeous tableaux and is set, like the opening scene of Das Rheingold, entirely underwater.

The most important opera in the set is the improbably titled The Legend of the Invisible city of Kitezh and the Maiden Fevronaya (yes, that's the whole title--the opera is also known as "the Russian Parsifal"). Rimsky's harmonies rise to meet the ear, seducing the listener with visions of mythological Russia.

And then there's the casts. These sets feature Russian singers who have become househould names in the last two decades. Dmitri Hvorostovsky, Olga Borodina and of course Mr. Gergiev himself, who has risen to become one of the most-demanded and highest paid conductors in the world.

These are the only major recordings of these works in the catalogue. But with this kind of packaging, no-one will hear them--or want to.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Obituary: The Seventh Earl of Harewood (1923-2011)

George Henry Hubert Lascelles, the Seventh Earl of Harewood.
Portrait by Tom Wood.
Music-loving noble, gave opera the royal treatment.
George Henry Hubert Lascelles, better known to the Royal College of Arms and opera lovers around the world as the seventh Earl of Harewood, died on July 11. He was 88.

Lord Harewood was a first cousin of Queen Elizabeth II and was sixth in line for the throne of England when he was born in 1923. When he died, he was forty-sixth. But he was better known to opera lovers as the editor of Kobbe's Complete Opera Book, a weighty tome that includes detailed historical information and plot summaries of operas from Aida to Die Zauberflöte.

The Earl was also the general manager of the English National Opera from 1972 to 1985, putting the London-based opera company on the musical map with projects like the first English language performance of Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung under the baton of the late Sir Reginald Goodall. He also served as a casting manager at the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, and was the director of the Edinburgh Festival in Scotland and Australia's Adelaide Festival.

Kobbé's Opera Book was originally the brain-child of Mr. Gustav Kobbé, opera critic of the New York Herald. It was first published in 1909, one year after Mr. Kobbé was n, it remains a vital one-volume resource for opera lovers. Lord Harewood became the editor of the book in 1954, after finding fault with an earlier edition of the book. It is still in print, and sits on the shelf of many opera aficionados.

DVD Review: Boston in Black and White

Vintage BSO broadcasts on DVD provide more than nostalgia.

Carry a long stick: Charles Munch.
Among the more interesting DVD releases this summer is a series featuring classic television broadcasts of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the baton of former music director Charles Munch. These discs are released on ICA through Naxos.

Charles Munch was an Alsatian conductor who specialized in French repertory, particularly the works of Berlioz, Ravel and Debussy. In his 13-year term leading the BSO (1949-1962) he took advantage of the United States' growing communications network, establishing the BSO as a household name on radio and television.

The first disc pairs performances of the first two symphonies of Johannes Brahms, filmed in 1960. Charles Munch conducts from memory, his baton style dominated by the long stick in his right hand. The camera work is also good, panning between musicians as they play particularly sensitive passages and not just focusing on the conductor.

These are strong Brahms performances, conducted with lyricism and rhythmic snap. The First has a good clarity of orchestral texture, with the lower instruments (playing the harmony parts) clearly audible. When the big noble theme soars out in the fourth movement, it is played with reverence and nobility, as the orchestra surges out in the triumphant final bars.

The more lyrical Second is elegantly played, with the slow movement one of the highlights. Mr. Munch explores the depths of these rich, thick harmonies, drawing a smooth, harmonious sound from the Boston players that would be envy of some better-known virtuosos. The third movement has lift and energy in its trio section, and the playing from the woodwinds is absolutely cracking.

The second disc available for review features a 1958 performance pairing the Bruckner Seventh with Haydn's cheery Symphony No. 98. This proves to be a strong combination, with the Haydn clearing the palate for the heavy meal to come.

Here, the cheery Haydn symphony (one of the twelve written for London at the end of the composer's long career) is just right, an old-school performance on modern instruments played with joy and precision.

The Bruckner Seventh is presented here in the Nowak edition, a slightly shorter version of this massive score. Although the small army of horns and Wagner tubas that make up Bruckner's wall of sound do not always translate well in monaural sound, this is still a powerful, noble performance. Mr. Munch takes most of the tempos briskly, leading a streamlined performance that still packs a satisfying punch.

Watching these two concerts--filmed at Harvard University's Sanders Theater in 1958 and 1960, allows the viewer to time-travel back 50 years to the golden age of the record industry, when orchestras were free to make recordings and play repertory for an appreciative public. These two discs are part of an extensive reissue of historic BSO concerts preserving the orchestra's legacy for today's viewers.


Saturday, July 23, 2011

Harry Potter and the Sorcerous Score

"Ahh music. A magic beyond all we do here."--Albus Dumbledore,
from Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone by J. K. Rowling
French promotional poster for Harry Potter and the Sorceror's Stone.
Image © Warner Brothers Pictures used here for promotional purposes only.

So this evening I was relaxing at home, watching (for the umpteenth time) Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone (or Philosopher's Stone as it's known outside the U.S.) That's the first movie in the recently completed film series, for you Muggles who read my blog.


Pianist David Pasqualini plays his piano arrangement of "Hedwig's Theme" on the piano, the opening of the Harry Potter score.

I found myself paying particular attention to the movie's score, a gorgeous, Romantic confection by John Williams, which establishes leading motives and themes for the main characters that run throughout the following seven movies. But what was even more interesting was the resemblance of key "Harry" themes to musical ideas heard first heard in the score of Wagner's Das Rheingold.

John Williams has a long history of writing film scores that borrow freely from other composers. And no, he's not the only composer who does that--Wagner himself borrowed from Beethoven on more than one occasion.

Mr. Williams' six scores for the Star Wars movies were directly inspired by the works of Richard Strauss, Gustav Holst and other "cosmic" composers. Discerning ears can also catch bits of Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Carl Orff, and Dmitri Shostakovich in his music.

But the Harry scores (for the first, second and third movies in the series) are among his most Wagnerian works. The opening theme of the movie (commonly referred to as "Hedwig's Theme" after Harry's owl) opens in the distinctive "Nibelung" rhythm that comes to define Alberich and his race of dwarves in Wagner's operas.


Here, you can hear the Wagner theme played in piano transcription by pianist Lennon Aldort.

The second part of the theme, a descending minor melody, actually quotes a phrase sung by one of the Rhinemaidens in the opening scenes of Das Rheingold:


Later, more menacing passages in the film recall the grimmer moments of Siegfried, with stabbing bass trumpet and a slithering theme followed by descending tuba. The whole thing is in a minor key, developed thematically from the opening in a flowing, organic way:


"The Forbidden Forest." Tracking session from the score of Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone.

The whole thing just breathes evil. Doesn't it?

Read His Lips: No New Operas

City Opera mutes VOX.
Amid all the hullabaloo of this month's season announcement by the New York City Opera is the fact that the company appears to be cancelling VOX, the 12-year old ongoing laboratory for new and contemporary operas.
"I once caught an opera company THIS big!". City Opera GM George Steel.
No, he didn't really say that. Photo by William Wegman © 2011 the artist.
VOX was established in 1999 under former general manager Paul Kellogg, to serve as a space for neophyte opera composers to experiment with new staged works. The program proved popular, and  expanded under the leadership of current artistic director George Steel, adding the Words First program aimed at encouraging budding librettists in 2009.

With 10 new operas being accepted each year, the VOX program was among the highest priorities for  Mr. Steel, who has made his enthusiasm for contemporary opera quite clear to his audience, who made themselves absent from this year's NYCO premieres: Séance on a Wet Afternoon by composer Stephen Schwartz and La machine d'etre by John Zorn.


But when VOX came up at this year's press conference, Mr. Steel hedged his bets. "We're trying to find a way to continue it," he said. However, given his company's current self-imposed exile from Lincoln Center and its contract struggles with Local 802, the union representing the City Opera Orchestra, and AGMA, which represents the chorus, VOX has probably been reduced to another bargaining chip in talks that have yet to start.

With performances at NYU's Skirball Center and a recent expansion to Le Poisson Rouge, VOX was, for its first decade a free event for interested opera-goers. But this year, the City Opera decided to start charging $25 for tickets at NYU and $15 for Le Poisson Rouge. Given the minimal resources required to produce VOX operas, and the company's new-found enthusiasm for venues outside Lincoln Center, the continuation of VOX would seem like a no-brainer.

In its forthcoming season, City Opera will present Prima Donna as its one "new" opera. The work, written by popular songwriter Rufus Wainwright has already played in Manchester, England and in Ontario. But the genesis of Prima Donna (which was originally earmarked for the Metropolitan Opera stage) had nothing to do with VOX.

What's really weird about this story is that the City Opera still has a donation form on its site for VOX. However, composers seeking to submit their creations to the program this year have been informed that VOX is currently not accepting submissions for 2012. 

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Clash of the Um...Big Robots

Battling Stage Sets Wreck North Jersey after U2 Show
The Met's "Machine" set in a performance of last season's Das Rheingold.
The usually placid swamplands around the Meadowlands Sports Complex became a mechanical armageddon as two giant stage sets did battle in North Jersey last night.

The clash was between the Claw, the 150-foot four-legged monstrosity built for the Irish rock band U2, and the "Machine", the 16-ton Rube Goldberg contraption (chiefly consisting of two dozen spinning planks) designed and built for the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Around 9pm, the multi-million dollar Ring set escaped from its storage container located in the shadow of the New Jersey Turnpike, and started its slow, inexorable march across the swamp, reaching the Meadowlands just as U2 were wrapping up their show.

Ready to rumble: U2's "Claw" set before combat.
The Irish band had just finished a late set at the New Meadowlands Stadium last night, closing the show with "Out of Control", the band's first single.


"All of a sudden I heard a whirring, clattering sound," an eyewitness said. "Then this crazy thing with the spinning planks started playing the flight of the Valkyries, or whatever. It was go time!"

The U2 Claw set, which has toured the world with the band on its acclaimed 360˚ Tour, wrenched itself free from its floor anchors. Using its 100-foot legs to scuttle like a crab, the Claw climbed over the three-tiered football stadium to do battle with its operatic counterpart. Its giant digital lozenge screen flashed with the message "This means war!" and the long central spire became a stabbing energy lance.

"This is awesome," one teenager said, staring up as the U2 set started to fire blasts of concussive BonoForce™ at the Machine's spinning planks. "Go U2! Bono rules!" he screamed before being crushed by one of the giant Claw legs.

Another local on her way home to Long Island told reporters, "This is stupid. What do they think they're doing, fighting like this? I just want to go home."

The Met's Machine set, last seen in the opera house at the company's 2010-2011 productions of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre issued the following statement in Morse code:
Battleground: crews clean up the Meadowlands after last night's robot rumble.

"People of Earth, your days are numbered. The OperaBots Have Come."


The U2 Claw responded: "Let's go. Let's go. Discotheque!" before blasting at the other machine with a thunderous rendition of "Zoo Station" that set its planks spinning. The two mechanical combatants grappled for supremacy above commuters, terrified witnesses trapped in the post-concert traffic.

The fight continued across the vast Meadowlands parking lot, partially damaging the nearby IZOD Center. The fight finally ended when both machines, exhausted, collapsed in the destroyed rubble of the former Xanadu shopping complex.

Scientists at NJASA, the New Jersey Alien Science Analysts, an organization founded and funded by the state after the 1938 attacks by Martians on Princeton NJ, were unavailable for comment. Governor Chris Christie has been critical of NJASA as a "hoax" and has promised to slash their funding "to the bone." But after the events of last night this may have been a bad idea.

Neither the Metropolitan Opera representatives, nor U2 band manager Paul McGuinness were available for comment. But Governor Christie's office said that Trenton legislature has high hopes that Xanadu will be rebuilt as the "fantasy shopping Utopia" of tomorrow. Funds for reconstructing the troubled project will be drawn from the slashed NJASA budget.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Exploring Topographic Oceans

The Symphonic Rock of Yes' Most Complex Record.

Original album art for Yes' Tales from Topographic Oceans.Painting by Roger Dean © 1973 by the artist.
It's hard to believe but 2011 marks the 37th anniversary of Yes' sprawling 1974 double-LP Tales from Topographic Oceans. And since the ever-changing English quintet have just released Fly From Here, their first record since 2001's Magnification, it's time to talk about Topographic, one of the most challenging, and yes, symphonic records of all time.

This is rock and roll with a heavy dose of virtuoso musicianship, stretched to a scale that Gustav Mahler would have envied. Each "song" (the word is a convenient label for these massive suites) clocks in at around 20 minutes, taking up the full side of an LP. Although it was slammed by critics as "psychedelic doodling" on its release, there is music of real value in these vast oceans of sound.

The four tracks represent an ideal fusion between the five Yes-men, working towards a unique, if obscure concept. Singer Jon Anderson based his arcane lyrics on the Shastric scriptures, a foot-note found in the Autobiographby of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. (And although I've owned Topographic since 1990, I don't know what he's singing about either.)

By this point, Yes had a habit of choosing words for their sound, not their meaning, even resorting on onomatopoeic scat-singing in order to fit words to music. Jon Anderson's high countertenor soars against the band, an intricate four-piece orchestra that occasionally sounds like a legion of players. And that is the secret of Yes: while every member is a virtuoso, the alchemy of the musicians together creates something new, flexible and awe-inspiring.
Yes, exploring the life aquatic at Madison Square Garden, 1974
on the Topographic Oceans tour. They played the whole album in order.
Steve Howe wrote most of the music on Topographic. Not surprisingly, his guitar is to the fore on the opening (and portentiously titled) "The Revealing Science of God", acting like a concerto soloist against the rhythmic complexity of the other musicians. He duels with Rick Wakeman, who uses Hammond organ, Mellotron, acoustic piano and synths to add impressionistic color to the swirling vortex of sound.

It's amazing to hear how Yes are willing to repeatedly shift gears in "The Remembering," the album's second track. But those gears never grind. In less than a minute, a lilting, acoustic ditty yields to a short baroque theme played by Mr. Wakeman. It is swiftly followed by a potent driving section that has all the musicians playing off each other, reaching as one toward the same musical goal.

Chris Squire is the founder of Yes, and the longest-serving member of the band. Here, his distinctive, fat-toned Rickenbacker bass (always picked) drives the engine forward. That engine is drummer Alan White, in his first studio outing as Yes' stickman--a job he still holds today. Their playing together is amazing, especially in the arcane, arrhythmic sections at the heart of "The Ancient," the third piece on the record.

The album ends with "Ritual (Nous somas de soleil)". This is the finale of the "symphony" and fittingly, the toughest nut for the listener to crack. After a horn-like announcement from Mr. Squire's bass, a majestic, searching opening theme is stated, accompanied by joyfuyl, wordless singing. The theme courses like a hungry greyhound, building to a huge climax.

Suddenly, an acoustic guitar announces "Nous sommes de soleil", a gentle, singing melody. This builds from the folksong-like melody to a vast expanse of sound, underpinned by Mr. Wakeman's under-pinnings on the organ and Mr. Squire's driving bass. It careens into a crazy fast section and then turns into...a drum circle?

On first listen, the giant clash of cacophonous, clattering percussion makes no musical sense: another indulgence on a sprawling, excessive record. But listen closely to the percussion part on the section that comes before, and the roots of this jagged chunk of musique-concrete become clear. Then, Mr. White takes a rolling, percussive monster solo against Mr Wakeman's slashing synths.

The final reprise of "Nous somme de soleil" is the reward for this brief interlude of noise. Mr Anderson's voice, the sibilant bass, slinky guuitar and Mr Wakeman's jazzy piano combine to bring the most ambitous album of the 1970s to a serene, perfect close.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Voted off the Island

Amber Wagner Replaces Deborah Voigt in Chicago Ariadne.
Amber Wagner as Elsa in this summer's production of Lohengrin at Savonlinna.
Photo © 2011 Savonlinna Festival
Casting changes from Chicago, where soprano Amber Wagner will step in for Deborah Voigt in the Lyric Opera's company revival of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos.

Ms. Voigt, who is currently appearing at the Glimmerglass Festival in a production of Annie Get Your Gun, announced today that she will be forsaking the role of Ariadne for heavier, dramatic roles. Ms. Voigt made her reputation as a Strauss specialist in the last two decades, and Ariadne has long been one of her signature parts.


Ms. Wagner is an American soprano. Her current repertory is similar to that of Ms. Voigt's a decade ago: Elsa in Lohengrin, Sieglinde in Die Walküre and a forthcoming appearance in Verdi's Nabucco at the Met this fall. She recently appeared as Elsa in the acclaimed Lyric staging of Lohengrin opposite tenor Johan Botha.

The news was reported this morning on Parterre Box. As the report quoted: Ms. Voigt “is focusing increasingly on dramatic soprano roles and has made the decision to remove the role of Ariadne from her repertoire for the time being.”

As a singer moves from light, to middle, to heavy repertory, the voice changes, and the vocal chords thicken. Unfortunately, the process is irreversable. With Ms. Voigt adding Salome, Brunnhilde and Puccini's La Fanciulla del West to her repertory, we may have heard the last of her Ariadne.

Concert Review: Revelation Calling

Bruckner's Ninth Brings Cleveland Residency to a Mystic Close.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Anton Bruckner: Master of the Mystic Arts. He composed, too.
The final installment of Bruckner (r)Evolution, the Cleveland Orchestra's four-concert residency at the 2011 Lincoln Center Festival, paired Anton Bruckner's Ninth (and final) Symphony with the Doctor Atomic Symphony by contemporary minimalist composer John Adams. Franz Welser-Möst conducted. His intent: to show Bruckner's influence on modern music.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Concert Review: The Age of Apocalypse

Franz Welser-Möst conducts Bruckner's Eighth Symphony at Lincoln Center.
Cleveland Orchestra music director Franz Welser-Möst.
Photo by Mark Alan Lee © 2011 The Cleveland Orchestra.
On Saturday night, Franz Welser-Möst led the Cleveland Orchestra in the penultimate performance of Bruckner (r)Evolution. This was the penultimate concert of the ensemble's four-night stand at Avery Fisher Hall. The concert featured Bruckner's massive Eighth Symphony, which is simply too long to pair with any minimalist work by John Adams.

The Eighth was the last major work completed by Anton Bruckner, a 90-minute symphony in C minor, presented in four massive movements. Like the composer's other late symphonies, it consists of ever-ascending slow builds, rising spires of sound built from blocks of brass, wind, and strings. The symphony has no programme or nickname (some refer to it as the "Apocalyptic") but its intent is clear: Bruckner is trying to touch the face of God.

With these performances, Mr. Welser-Möst's stated goal is to express a new understanding of the composer he idolizes. To that end, Saturday night featured a rarity: the unrevised "original cut" of the work from 1887. This infrequently performed version is slightly longer and contains some unfamiliar passages in its first two movments. Bruckner revised the work in 1890. But on Saturday night, the earthy power of Bruckner's score stood revealed.

Mr. Welser-Möst took a surprising, fast tempo for the opening movement, creating driving figures in the strings that moved the work forward and opened vast sonic vistas for the listener. This enabled the full 18-piece Cleveland brass section to cut loose with massive, block chords, voiced in stately, organ-like tones by horns, trombones and Wagner tubas. The scherzo was taken at a slower pace, with the rustic peasants' dance steps of the Ländler moving with the tread of giants striding over the mountains of Bruckner's (and Mr. Welser-Möst's) native Austria.


The transcendent moment of this symphony is in its third movement, as Bruckner reveals his intent. It is a simple, descending figure in the horns and Wagner tubas. This theme, which stands at the crux of the whole work, is never repeated, though later variations and progressions allude to its beauty. It is as if the heavens open, and mere mortals listening are allowed a corner-of-the eye glimpse of the perfect design of the heavenly Empyrean.

The Cleveland forces played this important passage with care and beauty, led by the exceptional horn section. The whole Adagio, from its opening strings and horns to the final cymbal clashes, built slowly into a gorgeous structure, rising heavenward in anticipation of the massive finale.

Depending on who you ask, following a movement like that with a 30-minute finale may seem like an afterthought, or overkill. But under Mr. Welser-Möst's sure leadership, this robust finale seemed entirely appropriate to what came before. Here, Bruckner shows unexpected mastery of the art of transition, moving from one thematic block to the next, without the pauses that mark his earlier works. The result: a thrilling celestial journey through Bruckner's own imagination. As the trumpets rang out and the horns rose for the final, unision chords, one thought arose: this could be the soundtrack to a beautiful, serene Apocalypse.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Opera Review: Hitting the Mark

Rossini's Guillaume Tell at Caramoor.
His aim is true: Daniel Mobbs as William Tell.
Photo by Gino Palacio © 2011 Caramoor Festival.
Friday night's performance of Rossini's final opera Guillaume Tell may be the last of this year's Bel Canto at Caramoor series. But tonight's performance at that gorgeous neo-Venetian arts colony in Katonah, NY marked a continued renaissance for this underrated, underappreciated opera.

With the exception of the famous four-part overture, the score of Tell has languished in relative obscurity. for the last 50 years. (The work has not been mounted at the Met since 1931.) Part of the reason for this neglect is the work's difficult vocal writing. It is demanding: four hours in length with six treacherous principal roles. But unlike Verdi's Don Carlo (which is similar in scope and casting challenges), Tell has a tenor role that is almost impossible to cast.

The part of Arnold, (sung here by promising tenor Michael Spyres) is treacherous, with a series of dazzling high notes over the course of four acts. But unlike modern heroic tenors who sing from the chest, an Arnold must use his "head" voice to cut through Rossini's orchestra. The effect is thrilling when it works, but singers who can pull it off are few and far between.


Mr. Spyres has an agile, sweet but smallish voice. He used it to good effect in his Act I duet with William Tell (Daniel Mobbs) and his Act II face-off with Mathilde (the opera's heroine, sung by the splendid Julianna di Giacomo.) Mr. Spyres brought his "A" game to Arnold's Act IV cavatina. But he ran out of voice in the follow-up, a challenging cabaletta that is sung against a chorus of angry Swiss revolutionaries. This is the character's triumphant "big" moment, and while the singer hit the notes, he could not cut through the orchestra and chorus combined.

Swiss independence? 14th century? That leads to the next serious problem with Tell: its plot. Based on a play by Friedrich Schiller, the opera takes a long time to get moving and to generate interest in the stoic figure of Tell himself. Mr. Mobbs sang accordingly, marshalling his reserves until the great Act III scene when the evil Gessler (Scott Bearden) forces the hero to demonstrate his archery skill by shooting an apple with an arrow, balanced on the head of his son, Jemmy (Talise Trevigne.) Mention must also be made of Scott Bearden, who gave dimension to the villainous Gesler with a resonant voice and malevolent stage presence.

As for Mathilde, Ms. di Giacomo did not enter until Act II, but her opening aria changed the entire timbre of the performance. She sang the role with flying colors, delivering her lines with power and authority, mollified with bel canto sweetness. Better yet, she generated warmth and passion in the long duet with Arnold. After the two singers raced through Rossini's vocal obstacle course, they stood silent, ignoring the applause. They chose not to break character even though this was a concert performance of the work.

The complete Tell is a monster-work, running well over four hours when played without pauses. Will Crutchfield did a commendable job editing the opera for this concert performance. He trimmed at least 30 minutes from the score. The Act III ballet was axed. Recitatives were shortened and the best vocal numbers chosen, even if they didn't advance the plot. The surprise inclusion was the Act IV trio, a canon sung by Mathilde, Jemmy and Hedwige (mezzo Vanessa Cariddi), Tell's wife. This trio provided a welcome "deep breath" before the closing pages, and showcased all three singers to fine effect.

Mr. Crutchfield proved himself to be a sensitive, careful conductor of Rossini's score, knowing when to restrain the orchestral frces at his command and giving free rein in the big climactic moments. The Orchestra of St. Luke's played with excellent form, despite some dodgy offstage horn-calls, delivered from the sides of the Venetian Theater and meant to recall the calls of Swiss alphorns echoing through the Alps.

Written in 1829, Tell was Rossini's first original opera for Paris. Due to political changes in France (most notably, the fall of Charles X which voided his royal commission of five operas) it turned out to be his last. Politics, contractual issues and the sheer exhaustion brought on by the white-hot pace of his career combined to force Rossini's retirement at the age of 39. And although Tell was not a huge hit, other composers took notice of this remarkable score. Its influence can be clearly heard, not just in the French grand operas of Meyerbeer and Halevy, but in the work of Berlioz, Verdi, and Wagner.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Concert Review: The Total Perspective Vortex

Night Two of Bruckner (r)Evolution with the Cleveland Orchestra.
Bruckner's music puts everything in perspective for the listener.
With thanks to Douglas Adams for the idea.
The second concert in the Cleveland Orchestra's four-evening survey pairing the late Bruckner symphonies with minimalist composer John Adams outstripped the first. Franz Welser-Möst conducted the second in this concert series, pairing the two composers in an effort to show Bruckner's influence on contemporary minimalists.

The main reason for this was the presence of violinist Leila Josefowicz. The Canadian soloist stunned the audience with her fearless, fleet interpretation of Mr. Adams' three-movement violin concerto, a treacherous composition from the pen of the composer of Nixon in China. Placed next to the Bruckner, the influence of one composer on the other was clear, creating the fresh perspective that is Mr. Welser-Möst's intent.

This concerto is written on a large scale, with a long difficult solo part that never seems to yield the stage to the orchestra. Ms. Josefowicz tore eagerly into the opening movement, and produced sweet lyric tone in the long, slow chaconne. Mr. Welser-Möst accompanied the soloist with a sensitivity, keeping the pace of the chaconne smooth and flowing, with a slow circular groove that was almost percussive in its steadiness.

Ms. Josefowicz displayed astounding technique in the final movement, racing over the chugging ostinato rhythms with such force that she shredded the horse-hair on her bow. Without missing a beat, she conducted a swift bow repair and raced to the finish line of the piece. It was a bravura monologue for this talented soloist, the kind of reading that makes a good case for further exploration of Mr. Adams' music by the most conservative music lover.

Bruckner's Seventh Symphony is the composer's most popular work, the piece which "broke" him with the Viennese public and finally earned the grudging respect of critic Eduard Hanslick. The Seventh is written on the same large scale as the other late Bruckner works, with the addition of four Wagner tubas to the brass choir. This is a hybrid of horn and tuba, invented by Wagner for the first performances of his own Der Ring des Nibelungen.

The Seventh builds to a series of slow, relentless climaxes before pausing and building again, rising to a mighty height at the end of its first movement. The coda of the opening Sonata Allegro pays homage to Wagner himself, with the entire 13-strong brass section playing a chorale that sounds like the opening of Das Rheingold played backward. It is an astonishing effect.

Anton Bruckner.
Bruckner dedicated this symphony to Wagner, and quoted from the composer several times in the score. But these quotes (which range from "Lohengrin" to the Ring do not undercut the power of the second movement, a long, worked-out funerary ode to Wagner, who had died in 1883. This slow movement, which gradually rises to its flowering climax is among this composer's greatest achievements. On the podium, Mr. Welser-Möst respected the composer's intentions and maintined the slow surge of power.

The third movement, a bucolic series of Austrian peasant dances, allowed the conductor and orchestra to show their playful sides. Woodwinds and strings whirled and stomped through the trio section, in the form of a Ländler, a kind of Austrian Alpine hoedown. Mr. Welser-Möst displayed mastery of the tricky triple-double "Bruckner rhythm" that dominates this movement.

The finale elevated the listener back to the heights of Bruckner's sonic mountain, with a return of the opening brass chorale and a new theme developed within the woodwinds. At the work's climax, the backward Wagnerian chorale returned, leaving the listener on the windy heights, under the starry vault, marvelling at the scope of Bruckner's creation. It was a stirring end to the second New York concert by this fine orchestra, who were in excellent playing form and inspired by the exceptional material in front of them.

Bruckner (r)Evolution concludes this weekend with the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies. Tickets are available through Lincoln Center Festival.

Requiem for the Audience

or...Yet Another Post About the City Opera

"One sound, one single sound. One kiss, one single kiss.
A face outside the window pane. However did it come to this?"
--Pink Floyd, "Yet Another Movie."
There's a problem with letting billionaires name things.
 Image from The Simpsons © 1994 Gracie Films/FOX Network.
In a theater that used to be named for the great state of New York, there used to be an opera company.

The New York City Opera was conceived in 1947, blessed by Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia as "the people's opera." Hizzoner tore the first ticket in two. The company flourished, despite being stuck in the difficult-to-manage space at City Center and being seen as an upstart "little brother" to the mighty (and well-heeled) Metropolitan Opera.

When Lincoln Center opened, City Opera settled into its new digs at the New York State Theater, a vast, democratically conceived limestone-and-concrete edifice that made up one of the three noble theaters that had landed atop what used to be the West Side slums. The Met was right next door, but the scrappy City Opera held its own for many decades.


The artists were happy, secure in their new home: the people's opera in the people's theater.

The slow, agonizing death of New York City Opera, helped along by the recent decision by general director George Steel to uproot the company from this cozy little home is not just about the loss of jobs or some effort to "dismantle" the company or shut out the union musicians who are its lifeblood.

The decision of City Opera, which forsook Lincoln Center in April in order to "go rogue" with a half-season of four operas performed at three locations around the city, is a horrible one. It is difficult for the artists and musicians, who find themselves reduced to a "pick-up" ensemble.

But here it will be postulated: this decision has the worst consequences for the audience, who have to follow the opera company's skeleton crew around the city like they're playing some bizarre operatic version of Midnight Madness.
"Um, Mr. Burns, I don't think we can mount a Franco Zeffirelli
production of Die Zauberflöte in that model airplane."
 Image from The Simpsons © 1994 Gracie Films/FOX Network.
This is about an opera company board that pays their fearless leader a six-figure salary while refusing to earmark any money for their musicians and choristers. Those fine hard-working artists face salary reductions from around $35,000/yr to a mere $5,000, reflecting what's happened in this American economy.

It's about that same leader having the unmitigated nerve to go on Huffington Post (another company that doesn't believe in paying its employees) and writing an "article" that is essentially a retread of the same flip platitudes that characterized the press conference which he gave last Tuesday at the Guggenheim Museum. I know. I was there.

It's about the massive donation made to the State Theater by a certain former Libertarian candidate for vice president-turned-billionaire. Much like the Simpsons' Montgomery Burns, Mr. Koch renamed the building after himself, (a name which this publication prefers not to use.) The State Theater was built for the people, not for David Hamilton Koch. They never should have allowed this man to rename the theater. That was the death knell, the funeral bell for the former "people's opera."

The people's opera company has left the people's theater.

In its place: humiliation of the singers, musicians, choristers and audience that once made up the lifeblood of a pretty good opera company.

Turn out the lights.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Concert Review: First Shots Fired

Bruckner (r)Evolution Opens at the Lincoln Center Festival
Anton Bruckner. Portrait by Josef Büche.

Wednesday night at Lincoln Center saw the opening of Bruckner (r)Evolution, the four-night stand at Avery Fisher Hall featuring the Cleveland Orchestra. Cleveland music director Franz Welser-Möst led the program, which paired Bruckner's Fifth Symphony with Guide to Strange Places, a 20-minute orchestral roadmap by minimalist composer John Adams.

This unusual marriage is part of Mr. Welser-Möst's ambition behind the festival, to demonstrate the influence of Bruckner's unusual symphonic style and cement the Austrian composer as a predecessor of modernism. The humble Bruckner would have been suspicious of the idea, preferring his colossal achievements to stand for themselves as abstract works of art.

The Adams work opened, a dense, harmonically rich four-movement structure played as one on the model of Jean Sibelius' Seventh Symphony. Thick orchestral textures, chugging strings and the guttural honk of the contrabass clarinet combined to create eerie landscapes like the cinematic soundtrack to a recent William Gibson novel.

Like that author's recent trilogy of books, Mr. Adams' work exists in the long shadow of September 11th, and was seen as a kind of threnody for the victims of those terrorist attacks. However, the composer explained in the accompanying concert note that his piece was actually conceived before the attacks, and that it was inspired by an annotated map of Provence in France that provided information on the strange and weird history of that remarkable slice of countryside.

Bruckner's Fifth Symphony has labored under similar misconceptions. It was written at a fiscally difficult time in the composer's life, following the fiasco of his Third. That, and its descending main theme have earned it the nickname "Tragic." But this is a misnomer. The Fifth is like a great stretching bridge to some otherworldly dimension, its span held together by great piers of unison brass and guy-wired by a pizzicato theme that opens the first movement and comes to dominate the finale.

Under Mr. Welser-Möst, the Cleveland Orchestra led the audience on a leisurely tour of this remarkable structure. The brass played with stirring power. The strings gave warm voice to the long melodic lines of the opening movement's second theme and the most lyric pages of the Adagio. The woodwinds came to the fore in the scherzo, written as a pair of interlocking Austrian country dances and reflecting Bruckner's country roots.

The finale led to the most magnificent playing of the evening, a 20-minute movement in which the ideas from the previous three are recapitulated in sonata form and then made to run in place with a colossal double fugue. The effect is remarkably like Beethoven's Ninth Symphony, minus the solo voices and the chorus.

Throughout, Bruckner's writing for the orchestra reflects his mastery of counterpoint and his decision to treat a full symphony orchestra as if it were a giant pipe organ. The Cleveland forces responded to this magnificent music with power, enthusiasm and an odd, awkward grace, making this concert a strong opening to this four-night festival.

Bruckner (r)Evolution continues tonight with the Adams Violin Concerto, paired with Bruckner's Symphony No. 7. Symphony No. 8 bows on Saturday, with the 9th at 2pm on Sunday. Watch this space for full and continuing coverage.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

City Opera: The Downward Spiral

Protests Outside, Dissemination Inside Mark NYCO Season Announcement at the Guggenheim
Local 802 and AGMA protest outside the Guggenheim Museum this morning.
Photo by the author.
The eyes of the opera world turned to the Guggenheim Museum today, site of the New York City Opera's much-delayed press conference announcing the company's 2011-2012 season.

Normally, a City Opera season announcement would be a fairly routine affair, conducted either at the former New York State Theater or a conference room somewhere on the Lincoln Center campus. But this season, which has seen the 68-year-old opera company uproot itself from its home at Lincoln Center, is anything but routine.
Close-up of one of the protestors' signs outside the Guggenheim museum today.
Photo by the author.
Outside the white concrete Nautilus shell of the museum, a protest was gathered, featuring tuxedo-clad members of Local 802, the musicians' union representing the NYCO orchestra members, and AGMA, who count the company's choristers among their constituents. The protest was led by soprano-turned-opera-director Catherine Malfitano. The singer, an alum of the City Opera, has been spearheading the protest against NYCO general manager George Steel.

"I am here to express outrage at the expulsion of the New York City Opera from Lincoln Center," Ms. Malfitano said. She went on to read a statement from former NYCO music director Juluus Rudel, expressing "dismay at the systematic dismemberment of the New York City Opera." "To perform opera with a pick-up orchestra is insane," she added.

The musicans have good reason be upset. Under the contract being offered by City Opera management (as reported by Daniel Wakin in the New York Times), the company will pay their singers and choristers a mere fraction of their former salaries, with no more guaranteed weeks. This has led to suspicions on part of both unions that the entire move is an elaborate piece of "union-busting" by the opera company. Both unions have expressed a vote of "no confidence" in Mr. Steel's leadership.

Last week, Ms. Malfitano wrote a much-publicized letter to the City Opera protesting the decision to vacate Lincoln Center. That letter was signed by industry luminaries.  Placído Domingo, José Carreras and director Harold Prince all signed. All are veterans of the troubled opera company.

Catherine Malfitano at today's protest.
The Local 802 banner is to her right.
Photo by the author
Inside the chilly Guggenheim lecture hall, City Opera general manager George Steel outlined the company's 2011-2012 season, which apparently will not start until February of next year. No mention was made of the NYCO plans to perform a 19th century opera in concert in October, although that show may be announced at a later date.

Next year, those who follow City Opera's trail of musical breadcrumbs through Brooklyn and Manhattan will catch performances of the Jonathan Miller production of La Traviata at BAM. No word yet on whether the company will use the Harvey Theater or the more opera-suited space of the Howard Gilman Opera House.

La Traviata (which is also on the Met's slate for next year in a revival of the Willy Decker production starring international superstar Natalie Dessay) will be performed "in repertory" with the U.S. premiere of Rufus Wainwright's first opera, Prima Donna. Mr. Steel was quick to drop Elton John's name into the conference as an endorsement of Mr. Wainwright's abilities.

Next up: Cosí fan tutte at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College, located within spitting distance of the company's old home at 20 Lincoln Center. The season concludes with Orpheus by Georg Philipp Telemann, at the Museo del Barrio on Fifth Avenue. All of these are small theaters. Mr. Steel tried to turn this into a selling point, mentioning that he expects a "scarcity" of tickets for next year.

In other news, Mr. Steel was quick to mention the City Opera's new partnership to perform free Shakespeare-based operas in Central Park at the Delacorte Theater. The first of these will be in August or September of 2012. Tickets will be free.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Opera Review: Canal Side Story

Vertical Player Repertory Brings Rare Opera to Brooklyn Courtyard
A poster for La Calisto.

Brooklyn's guerilla opera company strikes again!

On Sunday night, the Vertical Player Repertory offered its second of four performances of Franco Cavalli's 1651 opera La Calisto. The setting: a back alley and open space behind a former industrial building on the banks of the Gowanus Canal.

Judith Barnes, a veteran of the New York City Opera, sang the role of Juno and directed the performance. In addition to a regal bearing and a powerful presence as the Queen of the Gods, the diva-turned-impresario brought a wealth of young vocal talent to this production. Most notable: the pert soprano Marcy Richardson, doubling in the role of Diana and as the god Jupiter, who disguises himself as Diana in an effort to bed the nymph Calisto.

Holly Gash made her company debut in that title role, bringing pathos and passion to the unfortunate object of Jupiter's affections who gets turned into a bear for her troubles. The third major company debut was bass Matthew Curran, who sang the role of Jupiter before that god changed genders, and returned to sing a pleasing final duet with Ms. Gash.

Mezzo Hayden DeWitt sang the trouser part: the astronomer Endymion who is the opera's lone human protagonist. Endymion is literally moonstruck, in love with Diana in her role as moon goddess through his celestial observations. Ms. DeWitt's final duet with Ms. Richardson brought their storyline to a smooth, soothing close. The cast was rounded out by Nicholas Tamagna as the drunken Pan, stomping around with two bottles of Chianti to fuel his performance.


Pan's accomplice was the Little Satyr, played by excellent countertenor Joseph Hill. Mr. Hill displayed great physical and vocal agility in this role, leaping and running over the rough industrial space as if it were a ballet theater stage, and using his falsetto instrument to whizz up and down the scales in a baroque depiction of raging lust. Nathan Baer also delivered a fine performance as Silvano, moving barefoot (!) over the rough-hewn space and singing with a pleasing baritone voice.

Ms. Barnes' company specializes in performing operas that take advantage of the gritty industrial corners of lower Brooklyn. This La Calisto was no exception, putting the audience on folding chairs and using a makeshift acting area that included a fire escape, a basement delivery hatch (which doubled as a ramp), a bed and a carpet. The effect is that of a post-modern Venetian piazza, with the stars overhead and the bricked-off windows looming overhead. Greg Goff created effective lighting with LED units mounted on the rooftops around the acting area.

For the most part, the setting worked, despite the occasional siren, airplane or air conditioner that threatened to drown out the bite-sized baroque orchestra. The wrought-iron fire escape worked as a literal stairway to heaven, as the gods Jupiter, Juno, Diana and Mercury entered from the roof of the neighboring building. Other actors entered from the Phoenix Gowanus space (which doubled as a dressing room) or from behind the assembled audience.

La Calisto will be performed on the 14th and the 16th, weather permitting. All shows are at 8pm. For more information visit Vertical Player Repertory.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

CD Review: Zinman's Zurich Zauberkunst

Mahler: Symphonies Nos. 1-10. Tonhalle Orchestra Zurich cond. David Zinman
(15 SACDs + 1 DVD, RCA/Sony Classical, 2007-2010)
The cover of the new Mahler box. Painting by Augustin Giocometti.
This boxed set collects David Zinman's brisk, no-nonsense recordings of Mahler's ten symphonies (including the Clinton A. Carpenter completion of the Tenth, but no Das Lied von der Erde.) The Swiss forces are not as showy a "name" as the Vienna or Berlin Philharmonics or the American "big five." But on these recordings, they play Mahler with freshness, enthusiasm and love for this composer's particular genius. They are led by the American Mr. Zinman, who chooses brisk, but not rushed tempos, with some exceptions.

Throughout these performances, (recorded in the Tonhalle from 2007 to 2010) Mr. Zinman shows great attention to the details and subtleties of these scores, preferring the complex textures of Mahler's wind writing to the big blasts of brass bombast. The opening bloc of Wunderhorn symphonies (Nos. 1-4) are solidly performed, with rich brass playing and energetic strings and winds. Mr. Zinman has a firm grasp of Mahler's treacherous rhythms, making the sudden celebratory dance in the middle of the Symphony No. 1 Marcia funebre lurch to playful life. The "Blumine" movement (excised from Mahler's First symphony right before the work's premiere) is included as an appendix.
David Zinman. Photo by Priska Ketterer.
Mr. Zinman tackles the largest movements of the Second (the final "Resurrection") and the Third ("Pan Awakes") with fearless command, unveiling great structures from Mahler's complex musical architecture. "Pan Awakes" is especially compelling. The famous (and under some conductors, interminable) extended repeat in the latter movement is played with gusto, as if the Swiss brass can't resist a second chance to blast through Mahler's summery march. But after all this bombast, the Fourth is a bit of a let-down. The performance has the right funereal atmosphere, but lacks Mahler's grim humor.

The three "middle" symphonies (Nos. 5, 6, and 7) benefit from the wide, detailed dynamic range. Mr. Zinman chooses interesting, not always predictable spots to slow the pace, producing new effects without distorting the original works. The Fifth journeys from the brassy funeral march to its triumphant close, with a brief, intimate stop at the Adagietto. The Sixth (with its Adagio placed in the second position) simply kicks ass, starting with the heavy metal stomp of the low strings in the opening movement and the contrasting second theme. The whole climaxes in the crushing hammer-blows of the grim 30-minute finale.

Mr. Zinman also solves the mysterious Seventh, bringing out new details in this strange nocturnal journey. The central three movements (two Nachtmusiks bookending the grim Schattenhaft are played in a continuous flow. The whole ends in a brassy blaze of light. For once, this finale does not sound like a cheap knockoff of Meistersinger! That blaze of light continues into the problematic Eighth, with its titanic forces for voice, chorus and orchestra. The textures of "Veni, Creator Spiritus" are stretched to their absolute limit. The "Faust" climax is also slow, with an ardent performance from tenor Anthony Dean Griffey to the fore. The brass give all their worth.

One of the joys of this set is the wrenching Ninth, a symphony that can go disastrously wrong on record. The opening, faltering heartbeat is perfectly played, with muted, jarring brass. The Rondo-Burleske
whirls and capers. The final fade-out leaves the listener shattered. Mr. Zinman also does well by the (completed) Tenth, making the symphony more than just a Mahlerian afterthought. After a tremendous reading of the opening movement, he makes an intelligent argument for Mr. Carpenter's completion of the latter four movements. Those familiar with the "standard" Deryck Cooke completion may find this a more satisfying effort to solve this unfinished work.

Footage of David Zinman rehearsing the Mahler Sixth, from Going Against Fate.

This is a lavish box, spreading the works across 15 Super Audio CDs. They are packaged in individual slip-cases that replicate the CD covers, showcasing art-works that are currently in the collection of the Kunsthaus Zurich. It also includes a fascinating documentary, Going Against Fate, that chronicles the sessions for the Sixth Symphony. The film delves into the complexities of playing in a modern state-sponsored orchestra, from the tuba player's need for brass oil to a bassoonist demonstrating the proper way to wrap and blow a double reed. For this writer, the highlight was hearing Mr. Zinman offer a verse of "Alma", the satiric lied about Mahler's widow, written by Tom Lehrer. It was a wonderfully irreverent moment in the midst of a worthy recording project.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

The Sheer Weight of Sound

Reflections on Soundgarden and Bruckner Symphonies
Devastating bass: Ben Shepherd of Soundgarden.
Photo by the Author. © 2011 by me.
"They want me to write differently. Certainly I could, but I must not."
--Anton Bruckner

"We do this basically for ourselves. People appreciate it, which is cool, but I think they appreciate that we're doing it for ourselves. We're doing it our way, and how people like it is not up to us. We like it."
--James Hetfield of Metallica

So last night my friend Rob Pantuliano and I went to Newark, NJ to see the resurrected '90s grunge band Soundgarden play the Prudential Center. For the uninitiated, Soundgarden were the loudest, and one of the heaviest bands to come out of that Seattle scene, combining unusual time signatures, shrieked vocals and a slow, sludgy, heavy sound produced by tuning the guitars and bass down to D or C, and occasionally, all the way down to a low B. They broke up in 1997, but are currently enjoying a renaissance.


Christian Thielemann conducting the first movement of Bruckner's Fifth Symphony.

Although they wear the influence of Black Sabbath prominently on their sleeves, Soundgarden (Chris Cornell: vocals, Kim Thayil: guitars, Ben Shepherd: bass and Matt Cameron, drums) also incorporate psychedelia, jazz and experimental noise into their songs, creating a heavy, intoxicating brew that can literally massage the listener with the force of moving air: especially that you're standing right in front of the massive PA system.  Thanks to our early arrival and the fan-club tickets procured by Rob, we spent the whole night standing right in front of Mr. Shepherd's amplifier, watching the bassist's unique style of playing and being devastated by the overdrive coming through his pedal-board.


As the quartet thundered through songs from Louder Than Love, Badmotorfinger and Superunknown, I was struck by the parallel with the equally "heavy" symphonic writing of Anton Bruckner. I've been listening to a lot of Bruckner lately (mostly in prep for the Cleveland Orchestra's four-night stand at Avery Fisher Hall next week) and actually played the entire Fifth Symphony on the way to Newark. (In case you're wondering, it was the Frankfurt Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Eliahu Inbal, an excellent, and underrated performance.)

Bruckner's symphonies work on a longer, broader canvas than alternative rock songs, but both styles use similar techniques. An introduction. The theme develops. A steady rhythm is played. There is a pause. And suddenly the aural heavens open and the listener is exposed to a rolling, crushing heaviness. The song/movement rises to a climax, and then comes to a thunderous close, leaving the listener exhilarated.

The next movement of the symphony corresponds to the next song in the set--a slow adagio equals a ballad. A scherzo movement equals a fast rocker. But whether the music is played by a full symphony orchestra or by four amplified dudes from Seattle, the music has the same cathartic effect.

Soundgarden, in 1992 performing "Slaves and Bulldozers." From the DVD Badmotorvision.

Last night, Soundgarden closed their six-song encore with "Slaves and Bulldozers," a rolling, heavy 10-minute jam from the group's Badmotorfinger record. Standing in front of Ben Shepard's amplifier, the sheer weight of sound caused the air to move over me, around me, and almost through me with a pure, kinetic force. It was like standing in a rhythmic wind tunnel, hammering relentlessly at the senses. But the best part was yet to come.


When the song wound to a slow close, Kim Thayil and Chris Cornell took off their guitars and put them in front of their amplifiers to generate a rolling wave of pure feedback. Ben Shepherd did the same with his bass, balancing it on the headstock in front of his Mesa Boogie bass amp, finding the aural sweet spot before pressing his foot firmly down on the overdrive pedal. The wave of sonic assault increased in ferocity.

It was like standing in bright sunshine, being drubbed by pure volume. As the toneless, thunderous, seemingly endless chord resounded in my skull, rattled my teeth and made my nose buzz and buzz (like I said, my ears were protected), the only parallel that I could think of was the climactic phrases of the last movement of a Bruckner symphony, the penultimate (and ultra-heavy) Eighth. Heavy metal. Weighty brass. What's the difference?

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Since 2007, Superconductor has grown from an occasional concert or CD review to a near-daily publication covering classical music, opera and the arts in and around NYC, with excursions to Boston, Philadelphia, and upstate NY. I am a freelance writer living and working in Brooklyn NY. And no, I'm not a conductor.