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Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Concert Review: Cage Match

The Juilliard Percussion Ensemble pays homage to John Cage.
Fingers on the hammers: John Cage prepares a piano.
Monday night at Juillard's Sharp Theater was the second concert in this year's FOCUS! Festival. This year, the festival celebrates the coming centennial of John Cage, the always quotable, often imitated father of the avant-garde movement in American concert music. When needed, New York Philharmonic percussionist Daniel Druckman conducted.

For the uninitiated, Cage's music grew out of the experimentation of composer Henry Cowell, who was a pioneer in writing "tone clusters" (mashing down multiple keys of a piano at once) and to "prepare" a piano (holding down the strings with we objects.) Cowell's Ostinato Pianissimo led off the program, a shimmering, airy web of sound that seemed to emerge, unfold in the air, and dissolve. 

It was followed by Three2, a late Cage composition for three players. The percussionists stood at distance from the stage, making soft noises on a snare drum, eerie wailings on a lumber saw and gentle tones on tuned gongs. The music was wispy, almost insubstantial. Then it was gone.

The Third Construction is an earlier Cage work, with four percussionists playing in sync like a particularly noisy gamelan. Noisy, because the instruments include large coffee cans, bamboo cricket callers and a "lion's roar" (performed with a bass drum and a rope.) But despite the clatter, the music never sounded cacaphonous.

The second half of the concert opened with Mr. Cage himself. His disembodied voice, lecturing on the concept of "Nothing", filled the air of the Sharp Theater, sounding uncannily like the HAL-9000 computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey. Eerie, fascinating and a performance in itself.


The silence was soon ended, by Cage's Credo In Us, which pitted a prepared piano and percussion instruments against a recording of the Largo from Antonín Dvořák's New World Symphony. The older piece was turned on and off seemingly at random, creating chopped phrases of English horn, 'cellos and brass that jabbed their way into the textures created by the percussion players. When the electronic orchestra was cut off mid-phrase, the piece was over.

The concert ended with the Concerto for Organ with Percussion Orcestra by Lou Harrison, a longtime associate of John Cage. The Harrison Concerto featured the organist playing his instrument with fingers and wooden blocks on the keys, creating liud tonal clusters for the percussion to clatter and bash against. The second movement was quieter, and more atmospheric. The third returned to the high-volume non-chords and discordant percussion, creating brusque blocks of sound for the audience to contemplate.

Monday, January 30, 2012

New York Philharmonic Avoids Strike

Orchestra, union sign two-year labor deal.
Filling the seats: the New York Philharmonic poses in Avery Fisher Hall.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic.
Well, that was close.

The New York Philharmonic narrowly avoided a strike this weekend.

The orchestra, which embarks today on a three-week European tour, almost got on the picket line instead of the airplane. The musicians, who have played all of this season's concerts without a new contract in place, were prepared to strike if a deal didn't get done.

In late-breaking news on Saturday night, the orchestra told Daniel J. Wakin of the New York Times that they had signed a new two-year contract, maintaining their health benefits and giving players a small salary increase in 2014. There is also a hard cap on pension benefits.

Mr. Wakin first reported the news on Twitter, and then in a Times article compiled by himself and Adam W. Kepler. That article is the source of this story.

Mr. Wakin's article commented that this deal was "short, by industry standards."


The orchestra and its musicians had been at loggerheads over the company's pension fund. According to Mr. Wakin's report, management had taken its proposals for "drastic" health insurance cuts and "radical" benefit reductions off the table. Both sides agreed to reexamine benefit issues in 2014.

In signing a deal, orchestra and musicians have avoided the kind of ugly situation that nearly scuppered the 2012 seasons of the New York City Opera and the Philadelphia Orchestra. The City Opera players settled for an extension of their health care benefits with a severe cut in their performance fees. In Philadelphia, that venerable orchestra filed for bankruptcy before hammering out a deal with their musicians.

Tino Gagliardi, a representative for Musicians Local 802, told the Times that management backed down from a scheme to change players' pensions from "defined benefit" to one where the funds would be supported by contributions from the players' paychecks.

Opera Review: Inside the Circus Maximus

The Opera Orchestra of New York revives Rienzi.
Image © 2012 Rienzi Foods. Nothing to do with opera, and not a paid advertisement.
For Wagnerians, the composer's ten "mature" operas are near-sacred texts. They are (generally) not cut (much) or edited in performance. They are never interrupted by applause during an act. And they are revered by critics and fans of German opera alike. 

The same cannot be said of Rienzi, a five-act grand opera written in the style of Giaocomo Meyerbeer and completed in 1840. Wagner's third opera is a huge potboiler. If the score, with its endless processions, choruses and a huge ballet was played uncut, it could run longer than Die Meistersinger. Based on a novel that Wagner devoured,  the story retells and romanticizes the political career of Cola di Rienzo, a "man of the people" who rose to power in 14th century Rome. 

Rienzi is early Wagner, written in a style that imitates Meyerbeer, but with plot and music elements that show up in later gesamtkunstwerks: Lohengrin, Götterdämmerung and even Parsifal. Although the opera has never been played at Wagner's custom-built Festspielhaus in Bayreuth, it took the stage regularly in the first half of the 20th century. Following World War II,  word got out that Rienzi was the favorite opera (and possible political inspiration) of one Adolf Hitler. Now, it's revived maybe once a decade.

Over its long history, the Opera Orchestra of New York, (which specializes in concert presentations of rare operas)  have made something of a tradition of Rienzi. On Sunday afternoon at Avery Fisher Hall, former OONY music director Eve Queler led the OONY, two choruses, three offstage bands and a full cast in a three-hour performing version that excised about 40 minutes from Wagner's king-sized score.

The title role is sheer murder. This was the first of Wagner's "super-tenor" parts, with a high, loud tessitura that must cut through trumpets, multiple snare drums and dominate all of Rome with oratorial skill.  British heldentenor Ian Storey sang with pungent tone, delivering the required volume with a steady delivery, but looking uninvolved with the proceedings. Also, he kept leaving the stage during scenes involving his character, making an already shortened, confusing opera even more chaotic for the audience. Some redemption came in the last act, when Mr. Storey put everything into Rienzi's Prayer, the show's biggest hit.

As Rienzi's sister Irene, Elisabete Mateos displayed piercing high notes and ringing metal in her voice. Unlike Mr. Storey, she milked her character for all of its dramatic worth.  She was as fiery as the oranges and yellows of her first gown of the evening, (a blinding affair.)  Her performance, (and her fashion sense) got better as the opera wore on.

The best performance was Geraldine Chauvet as Adriano Collonna, who winds up on the opposite side of the opera's political plot. Ms. Chauvet was thoroughly invested in her character, elevating the proceedings with a sweet tone and high-energy stage presence. This was an agile, attractive instrument in a rare (for Wagner) trouser part, making the most of her dramatic and vocal opportunities. It would be good to see her in a better opera.

Despite some stiff phrases in the opening phrases of the Overture, Eve Queler brought a smooth, sweeping approach to this complicated score. She was in her glory in Act IV, where the audience was assaulted by Berlioz-like squads of offstage trumpets and drums. Video monitors and skilled assistant directors helped make this difficult scene the most exciting part of the show. 

Ms. Queler rode the momentum of this scene into the final act of the opera. She brought noble tone out in the brass for the Prayer, and created a suitably intense crowd scene with help from the New York Choral Society. Mention must be made of the children's choir Vox Nova and an anonymous group of professional singers, a late substitution for the West Point Glee Club. In the final bars, the diminuitive conductor was in her element: bringing the thunderous sound of rare opera to the ears of appreciative New Yorkers.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Doge Abides

Plácido Domingo to sing Simon Boccanegra with the Opera Orchestra of New York.
Plácido Domingo in the Metropolitan Opera
production of Simon Boccanegra

The Opera Orchestra of New York has revealed its "secret" production of the 2012 spring season, starring Plácido Domingo. 

And it's...Simon Boccanegra. The opera will be performed in concert at Avery Fisher Hall on March 7. This will mark the OONY's first performance of Boccanegra. OONY music director Alberto Veronesi will conduct.

The title role in Boccanegra has long been considered a pinnacle of the baritone repertoire. Mr. Domingo, who began his 50-year opera career singing in that range, added the role to his repertory in 2009. 

Simon Boccanegra had a complex genesis. Verdi wrote the original version of the opera in 1857. The confusing plot and lack of action did not sit well with the public, and the opera vanished from the stage. In 1881, at the urging of librettist Arrigio Boito, Verdi revamped the opera, restructuring the story and adding the climactic Council Chamber scene to the end of Act I.

Although the OONY has a reputation for bringing little-heard works and unusual versions of operas to the ears of New Yorkers, this will be a performance of the 1881 revision of the opera. It is also Mr. Veronesi's second appearance leading the OONY, following a 2010 double bill of Massenet's La Navarraise and Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana at Carnegie Hall.

The opera gained new life in the repertory in the 20th century, becoming a favorite of great Verdi baritones Tito Gobbi and Piero Cappucilli. It is regularly seen at the Metropolitan Opera, where Mr. Domingo sang the role in the winter of 2009. 

Earlier in his career, Mr. Domingo was frequently heard in the role of Gabriele Adorno, the revolutionary firebrand who is determined to knock the Doge off the throne of Genoa. In this performance, Gabriele will be sung by Massimino Giordano. The role of Amelia, Simon's secret daughter and Gabriele's love interest will be sung by Ana Maria Martinez in her Opera Orchestra of New York debut.

This performance will mark the 71-year old singer's only Verdi appearances of the season. It is also his third performance with the Opera Orchestra of New York, following a 1973 Francesca di Rimini and Massenet's Le Cid in 1976. 

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Opera Review: The Last Plank

The Met opens Robert Lepage's Götterdämmerung.
by Paul Pelkonen
Wedding interrupted. Act II of Götterdämmerung with Deborah Voigt (center) as Brunnhilde.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera unveiled the final segment of the company's new Ring Cycle last night with the house premiere of Götterdämmerung. This is the Robert Lepage production, featuring a frequently moving unit set ("The Machine") that reconfigures itself as needed to serve as a huge projection screen for digital imagery by Ex Machina, Mr. Lepage's Canadian production house.

This is not the best cast ever put onstage for Götterdämmerung. Deborah Voigt's performance had its rough moments, thanks to a dodgy middle register and a wide vibrato that threatened to degenerate in Act II. But the red-wigged diva pulled her performance out of the fire, even as she rode a giant robo-horse into the flames, singing an impressive, noble Immolation Scene.

Jay Hunter Morris continues to impress with his energetic Siegfried, although his diction still sounds a little weird at times. (Maybe it's a Texas thing.) His voice is a little small for the part, but with careful conducting from Fabio Luisi in the pit, he navigated the role's rough spots or in one case (the Act II "impossible" octave drop) avoided them altogether. 

Friday, January 27, 2012

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Aida

The Met brings back a fan (and tourist) favorite.
Rush hour in Thebes: The Triumph from Act II of Aida.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.
Seeing the Met's grandiose Sonja Frisell staging of Aida for the first time is like a walk through the Temple of Dendur without some guy nearby doing his Billy Crystal impression from When Harry Met Sally. In fact, sometimes you're so blown away by the too-big-for-the-stage statuary, heiroglyphs and elevator-powered sets that you forget about the singers.


Marcelo Álvarez will do his best to convince as Radames, the love-struck Egyptian general whose secret girlfriend (Violeta Urmana) happens to be a captured Ethiopian princess, and the opera's title character. Ms. Urmana's Aida will battle Amneris, the Pharoah's daughter, played by the formidable mezzo Stephanie Blythe.

The cast also features baritone Lado Atapeli as Aida's father Amonasro, and former king of the gods James Morris, serving them as the priest, Ramfis. Plus a whole lot of choristers in bald caps, loin cloths, and other Egyptian business. Marco Armiliato conducts.

This is a classy production with the Egyptians in white robes, the Ethiopians in appropriate jasper-like earth tones and everyone onstage in the second act (including the trumpeters) for the Triumphal March. It's been updated a few times, most recently with new ballet sequences (by Alexei Ratmanksy) for Act II. But the real triumph is for Local 1, the union for the Met's stagehands.

Recording Recommendations:
Considering its popularity, Aida has had bad luck on record. The safest recommendation is:

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan (Decca, 1959)
Aida: Renata Tebaldi
Amneris: Gulietta Simionato
Radames: Carlo Bergonzi
Amonasro: Cornell MacNeill
Ramfis: Arnold van Mill

There's a reason this recording, now 52 years old, is still in print.

Renata Tebaldi is everything an Aida should be, creamy of tone, filled with pathos, and able to cut through the (delicious) sachertorte of the superb Vienna Philharmonic. She is well-matched with Carlo Bergonzi, whose macho swagger and vocal stylings inspired Plácido Domingo's acclaimed interpretation. This is a collaboration between von Karajan, the singers, and producer John Culshaw, developer of the Decca SonicStage technology. And it has that moment where the air "cuts off" as the lovers are entombed.

Remastered properly in 2007, it still kicks the butt of every recording that followed.
Return to the Metropolitan Opera Season Preview!

Götterdämmerung It

When Wagner meets Def Leppard.
It's hysteria, I tells ya. Original art elements © 1987 Def Leppard/Phonogram Records
Photo of Ms. Voigt by Brigitte Lacombe © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
This morning, I was thinking about the unlikely confluence of Richard Wagner and...Def Leppard. So without further ado, here's a parody of Def Leppard's 1987 pop-metal classic "Armageddon It", re-written as a playful plot synopsis of Wagner's Götterdämmerung, which has its premiere tonight at the Metropolitan Opera. Enjoy.

"Götterdämmerung It", a parody of "Armageddon It" by Def Leppard.
Parody lyrics by Paul Pelkonen © 2012 Paul Pelkonen.
Original song written by Def Leppard and Robert 'Mutt' Lange © 1987 Bludgeon Riffola/Phonogram Music.

Ya better take this Ring 'cos I'm going now
Gonna kick some butt down by the Rhine
We'll sing a full-volume "Heil" when I'm heading out
And then you give me back your noble Grane

You got it? It's Götterdämmerung.

You say that Siegfried soon will be comin' here
And you know that Hagen's got a big plan

You know ya can't stop it,
So don't knock it,
You know we'll get it.

Hey it's Götterdämmerung.
Götterdämmerung.
Cos he'll bring us the Ring.

Give him that memory potion (every little bit)
Make him drink every drop (every bit of it)
Then we'll slip him the notion (oh c'mon live a bit)
That your sister is hot.

Yeah but are you Nibelung? It's Götterdämmerung.
Son of Nibelung? Yes Götterdämmerung.

We're gonna go up there with the Tarnhelm
And switch places so she won't know who's who
And then I'll kidnap her and you'll marry her
and have a big wedding hullabaloo.

You got it? It's Götterdämmerung.

But when she figure it out she'll be mad as heck
And then she'll plan to have him stabbed in the back

You know ya can't stop it.
So don't knock it.
You know he'll get it

Hey it's Götterdämmerung.
Götterdämmerung.
Cos I'll wind up with the Ring.

[Repeat Bridge]
[Repeat Chorus]

C'mon, Hagen, get 'im!

[Steer-horn solo]

Give me, give me give me the Ring
Because if I don't get it, Dad won't let me sleep
Pull it, pull it pull it off his dead hand
'cos this was my whole stupid plan
('cos this was my whole stipid plan!)

Is the opera done? It's Götterdämmerung
Yeah it's almost done, it's Götterdämmerung.
Oh crap now she's got the Ring.

Pile up all of those logs now--every little bit
Put Siegfried on the pyre--every bit of it
And I'll take back the Ring now--cos I'm keepin git
Ride my horse through the fire--Oh it's Götterdämmerung.

Fly ravens to Valhalla--and tell Wotan it's
Time to light his own pyre--every bit of it
Time to burn down the castle--what a silly git
See the flames leaping higher--whoa hot isn't it?

See Hagen swimming--get a hold of the Ring now.
See Hagen drowning--Rhinemaidens pulled him down
See river flooding--this all happens so fast now
See world is ending--It only took six hours.

How to Survive the End of the World

A quick guide to Götterdämmerung.
by Paul Pelkonen. Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.
Promotional image of Deborah Voigt as Brunnhilde in the Met's new Götterdämmerung.
Photo by Brigitte Lacombe © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
Gött-er-dämm-erung. Even the name sounds intimidating, pronounced with an "er" on the first syllabule and a slightly elongated nasal "a on the third. The English title, "Twilight of the Gods" also sounds kind of scary.

So you've decided to see it. Whether you're a die-hard Wagnerite with six Ring cycles under your belt or a novice going to the opera for the first time, here's a quick survival guide to one of Wagner's most imposing operas. Well, not that quick: Götterdämmerung is really long.

This is the last chapter in the Ring of the Nibelungs, a four-opera cycle dealing with the legends of Siegfried, Brunnhilde and various dwarves, giants and gods feuding over possession of a magic ring that allows its holder to rule the world. It's also a powerful evening of opera, with rape, betrayal, murder and redemption coming in surprisingly quick succession over the course of a long opera.

Here's an opera-goer's synopsis:

Although it is performed in three acts, the first part of Götterdämmerung is really a combined Prologue and Act I. At two and a half hours, it is long as a Puccini opera. There are no stops for applause, and no bathroom breaks. You can't leave the theater until intermission. In other words, pee before it starts.

The opening scene (a prologue to the Prologue) with the Norns may sound boring. It's not--there's some really neat music, but it's basically set-up for everything that follows. Wagner wrote this scene originally to explain everything that was about to happen to the audience--who Siegfried was. He later wrote prequels to the libretto for the original Siegfrieds Tod--and it is those prequels that make the first three parts of the Ring.

Next the tenor and soprano take the stage and sing a big love duet with lots of "Heils." As this is high, exposed music, you can soon assess whether these are singers that are worth your time or whether it's time to start rooting for Hagen. The duet is followed by the Rhine Journey, a mini-tone poem for orchestra that covers the scene change.

The action then moves to the Gibichung Hall. The descending theme of the Gibichungs marks the proper start of Act I, although the music never stops. This is your chance to see if the bass singing Hagen has a black, rounded tone in his instrument, necessary to express what an evil bastard this character is. Then Siegfried shows up, and promptly drinks a potion of forgetfulness. He then falls in love with the first available woman, Gutrune.

The toughest stretch of Act I comes in the scene known to Wagner geeks as "Hagen's Watch." The opera's bad guy sits himself down, and in a long bass aria, explains who he is and what his evil plan is to the audience. There is then a long orchestral passage while the scenery transforms before your eyes, from the Gibichung castle on the shore of the Rhine, back to Brunnhilde's fiery rock. 

Wagner follows these two slow passages with a long dialogue between Brunnhilde and her Valkyrie sister Waltraute, about how their father Wotan (king of the Gods) wants to kill himself and end the world. Things pick up again with the arrival of the drugged, disguised Siegfried, who is wearing the Tarnhelm, Elmer Fudd's original magic helmet. Disguised as Gunther, the poor tenor has to pretend to be a baritone in order to kidnap his soon-to-be-ex. This deception sets up the crisis in Act II. 


Here's the good news. If you've made it through these two long scenes, the rest of the opera (though long) is easy.

Act II is an hour, and gripping from start to finish. Hagen sings the Summoning of the Vassals, bellowing over a huge orchestral outburst. This brings the chorus onstage. There's a big wedding procession, and then Brunnhilde realizes that Siegfried was the one who kidnapped her. Her reaction isn't good. The act ends with a vengeance trio as Brunnhilde, Hagen, and Gunther (Hagen's wimpy brother) plan to murder Siegfried.

Act III is basically three scenes. It starts with the still-drugged, newly married Siegfried confronting the Rhinemaidens (with some pretty music) and is followed by the hunting party where Siegfried gets stabbed in the back. The tenor takes about five minutes to die. Next: the funeral music, which allows the orchestra to show off.
Finally, we come to the Immolation Scene. This is essentially a 20-minute scena for the soprano that sums up and wraps up all the plot points of the Ring before she jumps on her horse and rides it into Siegfried's funeral pyre. Hopefully, there's some cool conflagatory business going on for you to look at.

Once that conflagration happens it's home-stretch--there's just five minutes to go in the Ring. Sit back, enjoy the cascading chords as they resolve around you, and be proud--you've just made it through one of the toughest German operas ever written. Contact the author: E-mail Superconductor editor Paul Pelkonen.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Paavo Berglund: 1929-2012

Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund died yesterday. Photo by Kalle Ipatti © 2007
Finnish conductor Paavo Berglund, known for his interpretations of the music of Jean Sibelius, died yesterday after a long illness. He was 82.

The conductor had withdrawn from the world of music in 2007 for health reasons.

"He slowly faded away very peacefully," his daughter Alice told a Finnish newspaper. "The final cause of death was apparently pneumonia."

A Helsinki native, the conductor made three separate complete surveys of the seven Sibelius symphonies. He also held important conducting posts in Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen in the course of a long career.

His EMI recordings, made with the Helsinki Philharmonic and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra helped elevate those ensembles to prominence. He also recorded symphonies by Dmitri Shostakovich and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Late in life, he made a final Sibelius cycle with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe.

Mr. Berglund was known for leading performances of exceptional clarity and precision.

Here's a really good performance of the autumnal Sibelius tone poem Tapiola.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Concert Review: The Sound of the Northlands

Listening in Suomi at Scandinavia House. 
Parenthetically speaking: the members of counter)induction.
Monday night at Scandinavia House's underground Victor Borge Hall featured members of the chamber group counter)induction, playing works by contemporary Finnish composers Esa-Pekka Salonem, Jukka Tiensuu, Kaija Saariaho and Magnus Lindberg. 

Visitors to New York's concert halls might recognize some of those names:
  • Mr. Salonen is an international conductor, who also devotes considerable time to composition. 
  • Ms. Saariaho, Carnegie Hall's composer-in-residence is known for her spacious, austere soundscapes. 
  • Mr. Lindberg is completing his third year as the New York Philharmonic's composer-in-residence. 
All three are long-serving members of Finland's "Ears Open" movement, a resurgence of sonic creativity in that country.

Mr. Lindberg served as the emcee of the evening, introducing each work. He started by introducing the New York audience to the sound-world of Mr. Tiensuu, arguably the most obscure composer on the bill. Mr. Tiensuu's sound-world incorporates microtones--notes generated between those pitches on a standard scale--but does so in a unique way that recalls the complexities of baroque music. NOUS was a terse toccata, with repeated pounding rhythms and opportunities for virtuosity in its central waltz section. 

Next up was Homonculus for String Quartet by conductor/composer Esa-Pekka Salonen. As the title suggests, this was an intense piece of music. The two violins traded lines with the viola, over short, chopped rhythms that occasionally galloped or capered. constructed atop galloping cello rhythms that recalled another Finnish chamber ensemble: Apocalyptica. 

Similar, alchemical ideas infused Mr. Lindberg's Piano Trio, receiving its New York premiere in this concert. The Trio  was followed by the premiere of Mr. Lindberg's Clarinet Trio, with nimble playing from all three instruments. Mr. Lindberg laid out the thematic ideas in an opening "whirlpool." To build the second and third movements, the material was drawn from the bubbling cauldron, reshaped, and occasionally transmuted with fascinating results.

The second half of the program opened with Ms. Saariaho's Pres, a three-movement work for cello and electronic tones generated by an onstage MacBook Pro. . In a pre-concert interview Ms. Saariaho described an idea she had for an "endless" cello bow, the size of a large suspension bridge. She then moved to the computer station, working with 

It was not impossible to imagine that mega-instrument in the swoops and whooshes generated by the computer. Cellist Sumire Kido played with admirable focus, bringing the dreamy world of Ms. Saariaho's music to vivid life. The three movements incorporated natural and electronic sounds to accompany the cello, and a good balance was achieved in this unusual duet.

The concert concluded with Mr. Lindberg's Clarinet Quintet, a playful 20 minutes that, Liszt-like, packs the ideas of four seperate movements into one economical form. The five players tossed the theme back and forth rapidly, as if the musical ideas were too hot to handle. The most athletic playing here came from clarinetist Benjamin Fingland. Without the ability to play chords, the woodwind had to work twice as hard.

Beyond the actual notes, what made this performance work was the explosive energy built from Mr. Lindberg's taut rhythms and intertwining musical fragments. The work was clearly taxing on the musicians, but they were also enjoying the exchange of energy with eye gestures, shoulder movements and repeated leaps into the complex melodic fray. 

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Concert Review: Right Songs, Wrong Space

Thomas Hampson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The smooth Thomas Hampson.
Photo from ThomasHampson.com.

"You're all applauding at the wrong time."

That's what baritone Thomas Hampson said, halfway through his engaging performance of Song for America a carefully curated cycle of American art songs drawn from a wide variety of composers. The concert was also being filmed for future release.

Mr. Hampson gave the recital in the giant glass foyer of the New American Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. This vast chamber of stone and glass suffers from an echo-y acoustic that reflects sound from a number of hard, bright surfaces. But those technical problems did not faze the singer, who pushed on through the program despite the near-unmanageable acoustic.

The concert opened with songs by Francis Hopkinson and Stephen Foster, before jumping forward to settings by Aaron Copland and Charles Ives. The Ives songs, particularly "Circus Train" engaged Mr. Hampson fully, and featured some exceptional accompaniment from pianist Vlad Iftinca.

"When they asked me to do this here, I jumped at the chance," he told his audience, a rapt band of Met donors, music lovers and members of the press. Mr. Hampson ended the first set with "Tyger! Tyger!" by Virgil Thomson, one of the few settings of a British poet on the program. After a short pause, he delved into art songs by Samuel Barber, and the journey resumed.

Mr. Hampsons' aural journey took a turn into the darkness, with "Night Wanderers" by Samuel Barber, an account of hobo life, and the grim "Lonely People," a setting of Langston Hughes by Jean Berger. He captured the bleak despair of the protagonists in both songs, mining the same vein of angst that he regularly brings to the operatic stage.

The official program ended with two short song cycles. The first: Blue Mountain Ballads featured settings of rural folk poety by composer Paul Bowles. These songs, based on texts by Tennessee Williams evoke the pain and suffering of America's rapidly shrinking frontiers. The second (originally titled "Mavericks") features folksy characters who each meet a grim end. 

Mr. Hampson gave his most impressive vocal light and shading to  Richard Cory, the story of a man about town who finally chooses suicide. He created the air of religious fervor and hypocrisy for General William Booth with the repeated refrain: "Are ye washed in the blood of the lamb." And he opened up the full power of his resonant instrument for the set closer, "Danny Deever." And it resonated: making the walls of the New American Wing ring with this tale of a solder's death by hanging.

Those notes were still ringing when Mr. Hampson came back for a pair of songs about rivers: Shenandoah and Aaron Copland's arrangement of "De Boatmen's Dance." As his voice steered the audience smoothly downstream, one wondered if a shipwreck awaited the sound engineer who had to record the performance in this beautiful, but ill-suited space.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Concert Review: Giant vs. Patriot

Garrick Ohlsson plays Liszt.
Piano reflections: Garrick Ohlsson.

On Sunday afternoon, piano lovers took a break from the NFL playoffs to see the piano giant Garrick Ohlsson do battle with the Hungarian patriot Franz Liszt at the 92nd St. Y. Mr. Ohlsson offered a program displaying stunning technique, split between familiar, but challenging works and serious examples of the composer's catalogue. 

Mr. Ohlsson is a formidibale artist who cemented his reputation recording the complete works of Liszt's friend Chopin. In turning to the flashier Liszt, he brings that same sense of sober, scholarly reconsideration to this music.

Liszt was the masters of the art of transcription, writing over 200 piano pieces adapted from orchestral music, songs, or other instruments. Fittingly, the concert opened with his piano version of Bach's Fantasia and Fugue in G minor.

This one of Bach's greatest organ works, a vast exploration of the cosmos through the complexity of figured bass. Mr. Ohlsson leant on his sustain pedal to create the ringing, overlapping sounds of Bach's organ. He then lifted his massive right foot for the fugue, playing with the delicate lines with a light touch that belied the complex sounds that blossomed forth as the work came to its climax.

Inspired by Schubert's Wanderer-Fantasie, Liszt's Sonata in B Minor revolutionized the form by condensing four movements into one.  Mr. Ohlsson used tremendous hand and wrist control to explore its complexities. The last two movements, a harrowing ride into the piano's minor-key bass register was followed by a slow elevation to the more "blessed" upper regions of the keyboard.

The second half of the concert featured four of Liszt's most compelling virtuoso pieces, displaying different aspects of both the soloist and instrument. As the recital progressed, it was clear that Mr. Ohlsson was presenting these four works as a kind of pastiche sonata, a mega-work for keyboard on a massive scale.

Les jeux d'eaux à la Villa d'Este is from the third book of Années de la pèlerinage, an expansion that Liszt wrote late in his life. It points the way towards Debussy and Ravel. Feux follets is fiendishly difficult, demanding fast, light playing from the soloist. The opening pages contain (among other things) the inspiration for the bells from Wagner's Parsifal.

This "mega-sonata" concluded with another devilishly challenging work, the Mephisto Waltz No. 1. Based on an episode from Nicholas Lenau's Faust, the Waltz recreates dancing villagers and the devil's fiddle from that legend. The staccato rhythms with great control, giving way to virtuoso runs that seemed to explode from the lid of the piano.

One encore was offered: the searching, inpressionistic Klavierstücke in A. These floating, fragmented melodies were played with restraint and beautiful tone. This rarely heard abstraction showed that even in his last years, Franz Liszt still pointed the way forward.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Concert Review: The Rites of Winter

Stravinsky Outside Russia at Carnegie Hall.
Conductor Leon Botstein. Photo © Bard College.
On Friday night, conductor and musical archaeologist Leon Botstein led the American Symphony Orchestra and the Collegiate Choral in a program exploring the music written by Igor Stravinsky in exile from his Russian homeland. The program was  part of the ASO's annual subscription season at Carnegie Hall.

Dr. Botstein assembled a slew of unfamiliar Stravinsky, opening up the composer's repertory beyond the composer's most frequently heard works: The Firebird, Petrushka and The Rite of Spring. Instead, there was a wide-ranging survey of songs, liturgical music, choral pieces, and even a short opera. Like Stravinsky's catalogue, this concert was bewildering in its its diversity.

The concert opened with a recent discovery: Stravinsky's orchestration of the Song of the Volga Boatmen. According to the program notes, Stravinsky may have written this orchestration for  legendary Russian bass Fyodor Chaliapin. It was sung by Keith Miller, the former NFL fullback turned bass-baritone. Mr. Miller sang the steady aquatic rhythms with steady, powerful tone.

Mr. Botstein then brought in the Collegiate Chorale for The King of the Stars, a choral work that finds the composer exploring the cosmos in with rich choral writing underpinned by the orchestra. Mr. Miller returned, joined by mezzo Ann McMahon Quintero for the Requiem Canticles, a funereal piece that the composer had performed at his own last rites.

The wrath of God yielded to comedy with a charming performance of Mavra, the composer's  last opera. This is Stravinsky at his most playful: The Rake's Progress freed from W. H. Auden's pesky moralizing. The score features a poke at Mahler--a funeral dirge as the Mother (Ms. Quintero) mourns her old cook. It opens with a tasty love duet for soprano Anne-Carolyn Bird and tenor Nicholas Phan, that would not be out of place in Smetana's Bartered Bride

Based on a short Pushkin farce, Mavra is about a suitor who resorts to cross-dressing to get a job as a cook in his girlfriend's mother's house. The singers made good impromptu use of the concert setting, with Ms. Bird's shoulder wrap becoming "Mavra's" headscarf. A shave kit was brought out for the climactic scene, and Mr. Phan made good his escape by running across the stage and hiding behind the organ.

The haunting, antiphonal Canticum Sacrum opened the second half. Mr. Phan and baritone Jonathan Beyer sang long melodic lines, originally written to sound across the vast Basilica of San Marco in Venice. Here, the singers engaged in call-and response with the chorus, organ and sparse orchestra, bringing an air of religiosity to the friendly confines of Carnegie Hall. That pious vein continued with Babel : a short retelling of the Old Testament linguistic crisis featuring the chorus and narrator John Douglas Thompson. 

The concert ended with the more familiar Symphony of Psalms a work that is exceptionally challenig for the chorus. The Collegiate Chorale responded ably, handling Stravinsky's tricky cross-rhythms and harmonics. With the odd melody and rhythmic quotations drawn from the score of the Rite of Spring, this symphony sounds as if the prehistoric Russian pagans of that famous ballet finally went and got religion.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A Serious Winter Weather Advisory

Start your day with Zappa:
There's finally some snow on the ground outside my window. A good thing, as it's January. So while I drink coffee, write, and drink more coffee, please enjoy this important safety announcement from Mayor Zappa of Qikiqtaġruk, AK.
Hit it, boys.



The song is a radio/single editversion of "Don't Eat the Yellow Snow" and "Nanook Rubs It", the first two tracks on Frank Zappa's 1978 album ' (apostrophe). This shortened version (which omits most of the soloing and instrumental showing off that is a Zappa trademark is available on the Zappa singles compilation Strictly Commercial.

The full version is about six minutes, and forms the first two parts of a four-song suite with "St. Alphonso's Pancake Breakfast" and "Father O'Blivion." 

Concert Review: An Afiara to Remember

Elegant Schubert and Beethoven in Murray Hill.
The Afiara Quartet: (l.-r.) Yuri Cho, violin; Adrian Fung, cello;
Valerie Li, violin and David Samuel, viola.
On Thursday night, the Montréal Chamber Music Festival offered an intimate evening of intricate works by Beethoven and Schubert. The concert was held at the WMP Concert Hall, an unlikely jewel box recital hall tucked behind a storefront on East 28th St.

With its vintage furniture, hanging chandelier and antique mirrors on the wall, the WMP Hall is an urban anachronism, looking more like a small conservatory chamber in the Schonbrunn or Esterhazy than what it is, a New York concert hall slipped into a neighborhood where music lovers rarely tread.

The performances, by cellist Denis Brott and the Afiara String Quartet, were equally elegant. The concert opened with Beethoven's A Major Sonata for Cello and Piano, with Mr. Brott accompanied by pianist Kevin Loucks. The A Major Sonata is also notable for its second movement, which has the rhythmic seeds of the famous Scherzo from the Ninth Symphony.

The cello sonatas are among Beethoven's least appreciated chamber works, charming examples of his genius. Here, this music was played with warm tones from Mr. Brott's cello and the house Bösendorfer, intertwining to make two instruments resound like an orchestra in the tiny space. 

Mr. Brott put the composition in context by reading a translation of the famous "Immortal Beloved" letter between movements, giving an emotional underpinning to the eloquent music. But the real beauty came in his passionate bowing, playing Beethoven's rhythm-driven melodies with a sure touch. With playing like this, the letter, though historically interesting, proved superfluous. 

Without taking an interval, the piano was moved back and Mr. Brott was joined by the Afiara String Quartet to play Schubert's String Quintet in C Major. With an unusual configuration (the second 'cello replaces the more traditional viola, this expansive, symphonic quintet derives much of its power from the interlocking cello counterpoint that plays throughout its four movements.

With Mr. Brott taking the second cello part, the Afiara Quartet forged ahead with a bold interpretation that made the most of Schubert's melodies without sacrificing energy and drive. From the opening movement with its three traded-off main themes, the players' interaction in the small space showed both their experience playing together and joy in this glorious music.

The second movement evokes the same Viennese lyricism as Beethoven's Scene by the Brook in the Pastorale Symphony. It was played tenderly and with delicate care. The third featured potent rhythms, played with taut precision. The finale brought the performance to a stirring conclusion, a whirling dance of melody with a tinge of Hungarian folksiness that looks forward to Brahms.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Winger Ballet Takes Flight

Glam band bassist turns composer.
Ballet composer Kip Winger.
Photo from KipWinger.com.
I don't usually write about ballet on this blog (with the exception of the odd production of Tannhäuser) but this story struck me as interesting. Hard rocker Kip Winger has written a ballet score--his second.

His work, Conversations with Nijinsky will be recorded at Oberlin College with musicians from the Oberlin Conservatory of Music. The work is written for a 62-piece orchestra. Conducting an online campaign through Kickstarter.com, Mr. Winger was successful in raising the money, exceeding the goal of $35,000.

Mr. Winger is best known for fronting the hard rock quartet that bears his last name. (The group, formed after Mr. Winger had left Alice Cooper's band, was originally called "Sahara," but Alice Cooper suggested they change the name to Winger. A subsequent promotional campaign was built around Mr. Winger's looks.

The redubbed group had chart success in the 1980s with hits like "Madeleine" and "Can't Get Enuff" (sic). They are best remembered for the 1988 hit single "Seventeen" which rose to No. 26 in the Billboard Hot 100.

With flashy videos and an image crafted for MTV, the band was poised for major success. It didn't hurt that they were skilled musicians, with a drummer who had done time in the Dixie Dregs and hotshot guitarist Reb Beach. Also essential: Mr. Winger's twenty years of ballet training, which allowed him to whirl athletically with his bass (to the delight of the band's female fans.) In his teens, Mr. Winger had pursued ballet training, dancing with the Colorado State Ballet Company.

Underage, then under siege: Winger perform "Seventeen."
© 1988 Atlantic/Atco Records, Warner Music Group.

Vaslav Nijinsky. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
As the 1990s began, Winger suffered a backlash. The record industry decided that it couldn't make any more money on hair metal. (It didn't help that the "uncool" kid on Beavis and Butt-head wore a Winger t-shirt.) A second album Winger II: In the Heart of the Young mixed progressive rock in with pop metal. A third, Pull, went largely unnoticed.

In more recent years, Mr. Winger toured as a solo artist, reunited Winger, and studied composition.  He also wrote his first ballet score, the well-received Ghosts.

"Think of me as a theater-renaissance dude with a major focus in composing" was how he put it in an article on the Oberlin website.

Now, the bass-playing balladeer has created Conversations With Nijinsky, a ballet based on the work of  Vaslav Nijinsky the lead dancer in Serge Diaghalev's legendary Parisian company, the Ballet Russe. In a statement on Kickstarter.com, Mr. Winger said that he wanted to make his work the accompaniment to "the unseen dances of Nijinsky."

A Russian dancer of Polish extraction, Nijinsky was the most famous ballet dancer of the early 20th century, and danced lead parts in works like Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherezhade. But he is best remembered as the principal dancer in Igor Stravinsky's first three ballets: The FirebirdPetrouchka and The Rite of Spring. But his career ended in 1929 when the dancer suffered a nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with schizophrenia. He died in 1950 and is buried in Montmartre Cemetery in Paris.

Mr. Winger's work will be recorded and released in the spring of this year. And he shouldn't worry about his critics. When you've been used as a dart-board in a Metallica video, you can handle anything.

It's Only a Paper House

City Opera tickets reduced to $25 a seat.
by Paul Pelkonen
Leaving Lincoln Center has forced City Opera to be creative in seeking a new venue.
This one is low-cost, and best of all, folds up.
The New York City Opera has announced that all remaining tickets for its 2012 performances at the Brooklyn Academy of Music will be just $25, thanks to a generous donation made by the Reed Foundation and the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation. 

City Opera is scheduled to open its season February 12 with a Jonathan Miller staging of Verdi's La Traviata. The company will follow it with Rufus Wainwright's first opera, Prima Donna, which will have its United States premiere on February 19.

Each opera will receive just four performances.

Following a lengthy labor dispute, the City Opera is beginning its first season as a "guerilla" opera company. It has left its Lincoln Center home of almost 50 years and "gone rogue," (my term) and spreading its season between three different theaters and two boroughs.

In addition to the BAM performances, the company will offer Così fan tutte at the Gerald W. Lynch Theater at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, and Georg Philip Telemann's Orfeo at El Museo del Barrio, located on Fifth Avenue. The Così is an eagerly anticipated followup to Christopher Alden's acclaimed 2009 production of Don Giovanni. Mr. Alden will complete the "Da Ponte" trilogy of Mozart operas with a production of Le Nozze di Figaro in an upcoming season.

The company moved out of the former New York State Theater in April of 2011, citing the rising costs of being a secondary tenant in the recently renovated venue. This followed the cancellation of the 2008-2009 season, during which said renovations took place. A number of City Opera veterans, including tenor Plácido Domingo and soprano Catherine Malfitano were critical of the move, saying that the company was sacrificing its identity for economic reasons.

The 2012 season was announced in July of 2011. That announcement was picketed by members of the opera's orchestra and chorus, who were incensed at the company's new contract offers. A bitter labor dispute followed, with the intervention of a federal mediator and a January 9 lockout of the chorus. 

Musicians Local 802 and the American Guild of Musical Artists reached settlements on Tuesday, assuring that the opera season will go forward.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Concert Review: The Burly Show

Alan Gilbert works out the New York Philharmonic.
"And turn! And bend! And flex! And play!" Conductor Alan Gilbert.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic.
On Wednesday night, Alan Gilbert led the New York Philharmonic in three sturdy modern works. Composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg's Feria was followed by the Second Piano Concerto of Bela Bártok with soloist Lang Lang. Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, a steely-eyed product of his second Soviet period brought the evening to a loud close.

Mr. Lindberg's piece is a sort of orchestral carnival, with many of the musical ideas that have become familiar to New Yorkers over the three years of his residency. A ringing trumpet figure is followed by nervous, chivvying figures in the strings, and complex percussion parts. The orchestra incorporates unusual "found" objects. There is a percussion part for a suspended spring coil, and prominent use of piano. But what made this 17-minute piece work was an eloquent main theme, and a slow central section with subtle references to the Renaissance music of Claudio Monteverdi.

A lengthy pause before the Bartók concerto saw the Philharmonic reconfigured in an unfamiliar way. The entire brass were moved all the way to stage right, with the woodwinds sitting in front along the lip of the stage. The first violins occupied the center of the stage behind the piano. Since Bartók's composition omits strings in the first movement, and mutes the brass in the second. this divided seating seating made musical sense. 

Lang Lang is known for his Liszt, but here he showed no fear in taking on the technically challenging (and at one point in the second movement, unplayable) music of the other famous Hungarian composer. Mr. Lang brought an energetic, driving presence to the piano part, playing the staccato notes from the shoulder and pounding the keys with drill-bit precision. For the elegant glissando runs up the keyboard, his left hand would hover in the air, playing its own, invisible part before crashing down to continue the piece. Mr. Gilbert and his orchestra provided sturdy accompaniment.

Written in 1944, Prokofiev's Fifth is one of his more popular works, heard frequently when there's a large orchestra that has a tuba player with serious lung power. The symphony anticipates the forthcoming Russian victory over the Nazis. It represents a sort of high point in the composer's return to the Soviet Union, a high that would not last as the following Sixth drew the wrath of Stalin's censors.
Mr. Gilbert chose a broadly spaced interpretation. It featured strong playing from the Philharmonic brass, now returned to their customary stage left position. Across a broad sonic bridge built by the strings, the brass players duelled with Prokofiev's pounding percussion, producing a stirring first movement. This is the kind of music this orchestra plays very well, and they charged ahead like a Soviet armored division.

Opening with a bubbly clarinet theme, the Scherzo sprang to vivid life, evoking a Stalinist utopia with just a hint of Russian sarcasm underneath the rhythms. The second slow movement (which shares material with the composer's Cinderella ballet.) Most impressive was the inexorable crescendo, building to a slow, heavy climax that seemed to roll over the listener like a May Day tank.

The finale (opening with the same bassoon theme as the first movement) drove the whole conception home. The most memorable thing about this last movement is a prominent percussion part, led by the echoing "thok, thok, thock" of the wood block. But that's not the conductor's fault. 

UPDATE: City Opera Ends Lockout

Orchestra, Chorus to vote on new deal Thursday.
by Paul Pelkonen
UPDATE: The New York City Opera has ratified a deal with its orchestra and chorus, ending a bitter labor dispute that was stymied. A lockout of Musicians' Local 802 and the American Guild of Musical Artists has ended, with both companies making deep concessions in the interest of maintaining the future of the troubled opera company.

The lockout's end was reported by Jennifer Maloney in the Wall Street Journal. The company's ratification was reported on Thursday by Daniel J. Wakin in the New York Times.

According to a Wednesday afternoon report on local news channel New York 1, the contract is for three years. Dan Wakin in the New York Times reported that "core" health care benefits will be included. Orchestra wage details were not released.

Starting in 2013, orchestra members will make a contribution to their health care costs. The deal is subject to a vote by union members and approval by the New York City Opera board of directors.

In a statement, general manager and artistic director George Steel said that the deal will insure the opera's solvency. 

The last decade has seen City Opera in decline, from a vibrant house that produced 13 operas in a two-part "split season" to a pale shadow of its former self. A myriad of problems (chronicled in past posts on this site under the tag "Opera Company Goes Dark") led to this appalling situation.

The spiral started in 2007, with the board's decision to hire Belgian impresario Gerard Mortier as its new general manager. Mr. Mortier's tenure was largely an absentee one, and it ended in 2008 after a budget dispute. That same year, renovations to the former New York State Theater forced the company to go "dark" for an entire season. Since this happened when the chorus and orchestra were still under contract, City Opera was forced to raid its endowment to meet obligations. 

After re-opening the house in 2009, new general manager George Steel reduced the number of operas produced to five and sold the fall season time-slot to the New York City Ballet. In 2011, he removed music director George Manahan. He also cut back on important programs like VOX, the company's initiative to workshop experimental operas by young composers. 

Things came to a head when Mr. Steel moved the opera company out of Lincoln Center, abandoning its home of 45 years. This move took place around the same time that the company's contracts with Musicians Local 802 and the American Guild of Musical Artists expired. Last summer, the City Opera unveiled its plan to make "all of New York" its stage, offering four operas in three different theaters. 

But negotiations with both unions proved contentious. With only 16 performances scheduled, orchestra musicians were offered $4,000, a mere tenth of their former salaries. Matters came to a head when talks broke down, resulting in a lockout that threatened the company's truncated season. 

Rehearsals for season opener La traviata took place today with a piano at an undisclosed location. Orchestra rehearsals for the February 12 premiere are scheduled to begin February 1.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Concert Review: She Wants Magic

Renée Fleming and the Met Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
Renée Fleming. Photo © 2011 QPrime Management.
On Sunday afternoon, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra came to play Carnegie Hall under the baton of Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi. The program was unusual: alternating two clarinet concertos (by Mozart and Aaron Copland) with short recitals from superstar soprano Renée Fleming.

The afternoon opened with Stephen Williamson playing Mozart's Clarinet Concerto. Mr. Williamson is a principal clarinetist of the MET Orchestra, currently playing with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. This is the last woodwind concerto written by this composer and one of his final works completed before the (unfinished) Requiem.  He played Mozart's athletic solo lines and octave leaps with agility.

Despite generating a pleasing tone, Mr. Williamson kept pausing between movements. He disassembled his clarinet, examined the cork ends, and fiddled with the action on the keys. At the second pause, he wiped  out the inside of the barrel, and bit in a new reed. So in addition to appreciating Mozart, the Carnegie audience may have learned enough to open their own woodwind repair shops.

Ms. Fleming swept onstage (in a bright magenta gown) to sing Mahler' five Ruckert-Lieder. The soprano's voice sounded impressive in the dreamy heights of Ich atmet' einen linden Duft and the extreme depths of Mitternacht. But in each song, her middle register seemed to vanish. Also, Ms. Fleming is an experienced interpreter of Strauss, but she lent a strange inflection to this German text. That said, the final "Ich bin der Welt abhanden gekommen" was impressive. Mr. Luisi proved a sensitive accompanist.

The second half of the program featured Aaron Copland's concerto, originally written for Benny Goodman. Anthony McGill showed himself to be an outstanding soloist, playing with bright, vibrant tone and racing through Copland's jazz-inflected figures. Mr. Luisi drew some gorgeous sonorities from the Met orchestra, lovely shimmers of strings with Copland's signature tonalities that suggest wide American landscapes and urban bustle.


In the course of her long career, Ms. Fleming has shown commitment to 20th century opera, especially in bringing Carlisle Floyd's powerful Susannah to the Met stage and creating Blanche DuBois in A Streetcar Named Desire. Here, she presented three arias from modern American operas by Samuel Barber and Bernard Hermann.  Two of these arias appear on I Want Magic! the 1998 album which she recorded with the Met Orchestra and Mr. Levine.

She opened the short set with "Give Me Some Music" from Barber's Antony and Cleopatra, the opera that opened the new Met in 1967. Today it is chiefly remembered for director Franco Zeffirelli's extravagant pyramid set, which broke the opera house's brand-new turntable. Here, the soprano battled a sandstorm of orchestration, taxing her instrument to portray the Egyptian queen against the heavy brass and strings of Barber's score. She faced similar challenges in "Do Not Utter a Word" from Vanessa. But Mr. Luisi was more successful in managing the orchestra, creating a rich balance of sound. Ms. Fleming soared to some powerful heights in this frantic scena.

Bernard Herrmann is remembered for his film scores for Alfred Hitchcock: most notably Psycho. "I Have Dreamt" is from his opera Wuthering Heights, and featured Ms. Fleming as Emily Brontë's haunted heroine. Mr. Luisi drew rich tones from the Met orchestra, conveying Mr. Herrmann's rich, Korngold-like textures. But like Catherine's ghost, the middle voice seemed swaddled in the heavy orchestral fabric, and did not make a great case for future mountings of this Gothic opera.

Ms. Fleming offered one encore: "I can smell the sea air" from André Previn's Streetcar. This was a treat for New Yorkers, who have not yet seen this operatic version of the Tennessee Williams play onstage. Ms. Fleming did a powerful job of inhabiting Blanche Dubois's particular descent into madness, arching into Mr. Prévin's lush phrases with ease.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Concert Review: How Zubin Got His Groove Back

Or: Bruckner 8, Cell Phones 0.
Cosmic traveler: former New York Philharmonic music director Zubin Mehta.
Playing the final completed composition of a great symphonist can be a daunting task. The job is harder when the composer is Anton Bruckner. All Bruckner symphonies are big, but none is more massive than the mighty Eighth. Its orchestral requirements are huge, and the four movements can last almost an hour and a half.

These performances of the Eighth at the New York Philharmonic feature the return of Zubin Mehta, the orchestra's former music director. (He stepped down in 1991.) This year, Mr. Mehta's younger brother Zarin is due to step down too (as orchestra President) in 2012. Zarin was in attendance at Friday night's concert, in a second tier box alongside current music director Alan Gilbert and acting Artistic Administrator Ed Yim.

Maybe it was the heavy brass upstairs, but the brass-heavy mystic sound-world of this symphony took some time to come into focus on Friday night. The first  theme in the cellos was played forcefully, paving the way for the brass' entrance. With a full complement of eight horns, Wagner tubas, heavy trombones and tuba, this is a lot of music to coordinate. The stentorian thematic statement of the motto theme didn't quite come off as it should, but conductor and orchestra settled in to deliver a potent first movement.


Once the development was reached, Mr. Mehta finally showed the touch with this orchestra that he had displayed early in his 13-year career on the podium of Avery Fisher Hall.  Working without a score, Mr. Mehta clarified and emphasized the drama of this abstract music, with audible references to Wagner's Nibelungs and Valkyries underlined in this interpretation. (All that experience conducting the Ring had clearly paid off.) The first movement rose to a mighty climax and then cut off, building again and leaving the audience breathless.

The second movement more consistent, with Mr. Mehta taking a heavy, broad approach to the trademark three-two ländler rhythm that dominates this scherzo. The theme rose and fell like giants or very large gods at play. The trio had a lovely, Viennese grace to it that is heard in the later Bruckner symphonies, as if the peasant composer with a love of church music had finally gained a little urban sophistication.

The "Bruckner rhythm" expands to an enormous scale in the third movement, one of the composer's most majestic Adagios. Here, the Philharmonic's augmented brass section moved to the fore, seeming to open a sonic gateway into the cosmic mysteries that so obsessed this composer. Unusually, the climax of the Adagio at its exact midpoint, with a simple, unforgettable canon in the horns that is stated once. That horn figure seems to be the long-sought truth at the heart of this questing movement. It is then varied and interwoven into the huge structure, but never repeated.

The potent opening of the finale with pounding timpani and driving strings served as the central building block for a mighty summation of everything that had come before. As the opening statement returned (this time played with firmness and conviction) the Philharmonic rose to a triumphant height. Once more, the Austrian peasant with a simple, unlikely talent for writing big music, had conquered.

Friday, January 13, 2012

Time Running Out for City Opera

Doomsday clock ticks for New York's second opera company.
by Paul Pelkonen
If only this were a production design for L'heure Espagnole.
A series of decisions and disasters may spell "das Ende" for the New York City Opera.

The opera company has locked out two unions: Musicians' Local 802 and the American Guild of Musical Artists in a dispute over a new contract that has turned ugly.

City Opera was founded in 1943 by then New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. Hizzoner wanted an opera company that was the working man's alternative to the Met, with its ritzy Opera Club and Diamond Horseshoe. The company originally performed at City Center.

In 1967, NYCO moved to the then-new New York State Theater on the south side of Lincoln Center Plaza. They continued to offer an eclectic mix of repertory favorites, with Verdi, Puccini and Bizet mixed in with lesser-known works like Boito's Mefistofele and Douglas Moore's The Ballad of Baby Doe.

The opera company also served as the launching point for a number of great careers, featuring tenor Plácido Domingo, soprano Beverly Sills, and basses Norman Triegle and Samuel Ramey. Many of these singers went on to sing at the Metropolitan Opera and to international careers, but some, like Ms. Sills, and later, Lauren Flanigan, made City Opera the center of their New York careers.

The City Opera was also where a young future opera journalist had his first encounter with the art form. I saw everything from Turandot (my first opera) to Leonard Bernstein's Candide, Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges, The Mikado and Sweeney Todd in that burgundy-and-bronze theater. It was a diverse mix of operas, operettas and the occasional musical, a dizzying flow of laughter, tears and music that helped form me into the writer I am today.

I ran through its corridors, rode in its elevators, and sat with Mom and Dad in our subscription seats, located in the Third Ring with a nice view of the whole house. A lonely kid--I read books (and libretti) at intermission. I well remember missing the entire second act of La bohème once because I was engrossed in the "Mines of Moria" section of The Fellowship of the Ring.  And I remember how thrilled we all were when City Opera introduced super-titles in 1983.

Those were good days. I saw stagings by Hal Prince and Maurice Sendak. We were thrilled by Sam Ramey in Attila. Even after my father died in 1985, Mom and I still went to City Opera. (She preferred orchestra seats.) Partially in his memory, but we had also become addicted. We still went there in 1990, which was when Mom bought her first subscription to the Met.

In 1996, I completed my education and started working in this industry as an Associate Editor at Citysearch.com, formerly MetroBeat. I was covering Opera, Sports, and Fitness. (Classical Music came later.) I well remember the first City Opera performance I wrote about in those days, Der Rosenkavalier with Gwendolyn Jones as Octavian. I was even more shocked when an up-and-coming heldentenor who wanted some publicity brought Ms. Jones with him to our office. I think the word "gobsmacked" applied.

Ten years ago, following the horrors of 9/11, it was City Opera that started the ball rolling again at Lincoln Center, with a curiously grim and zombie-like revival of The Mikado. The date was September 15th. I guess we were all feeling a little shell-shocked.

Now, City Opera has left that home at Lincoln Center, opting for a "run-and-gun" approach, marketing themselves as a "leaner" and "fitter" operation. Now that they've locked out its chorus (and starting on February 1) its orchestra, it may starve to death. There's one month until the scheduled premiere of La Traviata at Brooklyn Academy of Music. Let's see if they can find a way to stay alive.

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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.