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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.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Opera Review: The Fast Track to Hell

Juilliard Opera ends its season with Don Giovanni.
by Paul Pelkonen
Donna Elvira (Devon Guthrie) the Don (JeongChal Cha) and Leporello (Alexander Hajek)
party on in Stephen Wadsworth's new Don Giovanni. Photo by Nan Merriman © 2012 The Juilliard School.
In the past two years, the Juilliard Opera has produced performances at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater that have regularly outshined their bigger, flossier neighbors at the opera house with (hocked) Marc Chagall paintings in its windows. This week, they did it again with a new Don Giovanni, a sleek, uproarious production that captures the anarchist spirit of Mozart's darkest comedy.

This new production by Steven Wadsworth is also a treat for Mozart nerds (like this writer.) Mr. Wadsworth chose to present the 1788 Vienna edition of the dramma giocoso, which has a new scene for Leporello and Zerlina, and a number of important stage cuts (one tenor aria and the Epilogue.) The opera now ends with Don Giovanni's damnation and Mozart's bleak D minor chords.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Opera Review: The Glittering Undead


The Manhattan School of Music resurrects The Ghosts of Versailles.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Marie Antoinette.
Painting by Elisabeth Vigée Le Brun.
In 1991, John Corigliano's opera The Ghosts of Versailles was the toast of New York. The witty libretto (by William Hoffmann) fearlessly combined Beaumarchais' robust comedy with the grief of an uncertain afterlife and the bloody nightmare of the French Revolution. Mr. Corigliano's music is a perfect complement, a polymath score rife with references and musical riddles, incorporating modern music alongside classicism. Its vibrant, emotional heart is wrapped in gilt.

Following one revival at the Met, Ghosts was silenced in New York. This sparkling revival is mounted by the Manhattan School of Music. (The school also happens to be Mr. Corigliano's alma mater.) Due to limitations of the Borden's orchestra pit, certain large instruments (percussion, harps) had to be played elsewhere in the school, and digitally mixed with the main performance.

These performances were also the first New York stagings of a smart, spiffy production by Jay Lesenger. The massive orchestration was also carved down (by orchestrator John David Earnest) to a lean 48 players under the taut control of Steven Osgood. These two artists (exiles from New York City Opera after that company's recent turmoil) worked together to create a grand evening, and one of the most enjoyable opera performances of this spring season.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Concert Review: Across the Narrow Sea

The Philharmonic premieres Mark Neikrug's Concerto for Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura (The Great Wave) by Hokusai
as it appeared on the score cover of Debussys La Mer.
Kanagawa Oki Nami Ura
This week, the New York Philharmonic launched the first performances of Marc Neikrug's Concerto for Orchestra, a major work by this modern composer dedicated to music director Alan Gilbert and designed to show the players of this famous orchestra to maximum effect. Mr. Gilbert conducted.

Mr. Neikrug's Concerto was framed as the centerpiece in a centuries-spanning program that ranged over 400 years of music making, from the delicate classicism of Mozart to the modern ideas of Mr. Neikrug. Friday's matinee concert opened with Hector Berlioz' overture Le Corsaire. Although the woodwinds sounded muddled in the early pages of the work, the ensemble recovered to deliver a thrilling, salty performance, reveling in this composer's complex orchestrations.

Despite some unusual orchestral textures and a penchant for dissonance that made members of the staid Friday matinee subscription audience somewhat uncomfortable, Mr. Neikrug's creation is a fairly conventional four-movement work. In fact, this Concerto seems more like a symphony under another name, as it has a scherzo, slow movement and blazing finale, forms that have more in common with that genre.

Showdown at the Gates of Hades

City Opera's Orpheus threatened by union protest. 
by Paul Pelkonen
Strikebreaker Abraham "Grampa" Simpson describes a trip to Shelbyville.
Image from The Simpsons episode Last Exit to Springfield © 1992 Gracie Films/20th Century Fox.
The New York City Opera is having trouble with unions again. 

However, while the cash-strapped opera company has drawn fire from unions for its hard-nosed tactics in the past year, this protest is not directed directly at City Opera. The conflict is between El Museo del Barrio and members of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees Local One.

A report in the Wall Street Journal  stated that union officials are counting on a visible picket outside the opera company's new production of Georg Philipp Telemann's Orpheus to open a dialogue between representatives from El Museo and from Local One. The opera is being performed at El Teatro, a jewel box theater usually reserved for lectures and discussion panels. The union's labor leaders want the Upper East Side arts venue to become unionized.

Friday, April 27, 2012

DVD Review: The Vault of Heaven

The Barenboim Parsifal finally arrives on DVD.
by Paul Pelkonen
Femme fatale: Waltraud Meier casts a spell as Kundry in Act II of Parsifal.
Image © Euro Arts/Berlin Staatsoper.
This video of Wagner's Parsifal, shot for Teldec in 1992 at the Berlin Staatsoper is notable for its strong, youthful cast of major Wagner singers and its stark production values. These come from director, Harry Kupfer, a proponent of the "older" school of regietheater, in that his ideas actually work. Mr. Kupfer transport the valued mystic objects (the Grail, the Spear) in a vast subterranean bank vault, a shifting puzzle box with moving walls and a huge vault door predominating the action. 

Twenty years ago, this was one of the first "concept" Parsifals released on home video to break away from the standard image of knights in robes and helmets and flowery tarts frolicking around the opera's clueless hero. Happily, Mr. Kupfer's ideas hold up well. His claustrophobic setting is populated by weak, tottering Grail Knights that treat their daily worship as a narcotic fix. Amfortas (Falk Struckmann) is a haggard mess, with a very visible wound in his side. At the opera's end, he dies, and Kundry lives.

If you're acquainted with this opera, you know that nothing happens for the first half of Act I. Then Parsifal (Poul Elming) blunders into the vault. He is taken to a strange Grail ritual where Amfortas is placed on a sort of metaphorical spear point, and lifted high above the Knights to "trigger" the Grail's magic. Klingsor's realm (on the other side of the vault door) is a mirror image. His "magic garden" is a matrix of CRT screens, populated by vapid models in various stages of undress. At the end of Act II, Parsifal sets off a massive system crash.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Finding the Cathedral

An approach to the music of Anton Bruckner.
A Viennese silhouette of Anton Bruckner at the organ.
Among the major symphonic composers of the 19th century, Anton Bruckner is one of the most popular, the most misunderstood, and for the novice listener, the most forbidding. Bruckner's eleven symphonies (counting the "student" work numbered "00" and the rejected Symphony in D (commonly known as "Die Nulte" or "Number 0") chart a vast evolutionary sweep.

Bruckner is a composer who has been accused by music writers of repeating himself in his symphare many clichés about this composer: "sky-reaching cathedrals of sound," "Bruckner rhythms" and "Block chords played like organ stops" to name the three most popular among critics. (Don't laugh. I've used all three of these, and there are others.)

My first encounter with Bruckner was in Boston when I was an enthusiastic, if callow graduate student pursuing a degree in journalism. At a local record store, I found a used promotional copy of Daniel Barenboim's second recording of the Eighth. I listened, or tried to, and quickly became lost in the vast sonic spans of this penultimate symphony. I didn't understand it. Eventually, that disc, with its pretty cover (a photograph of Saturn, the Seventh (!) planet--apparently Teldec marketers thought Bruckner was actually Holst) went back to the shop.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Billy Budd

Benjamin Britten's powerful tale of injustice on the high seas.
by Paul Pelkonen
San Francisco days: Nathan Gunn as Billy Budd.
Image © 2007 San Francisco Opera.

Billy Budd is one of Benjamin Britten's most effective operas, the tale of an innocent seaman gang-pressed aboard the H.M.S. Indomitable during the Napoleonic Wars. Once there, Billy runs afoul of John Claggart, the ship's master-at-arms. Claggart, a malevolent, Iago-like figure decides to frame Billy for mutiny. Although the shipboard rebellion never happens, Billy still swings at the end of a rope.

Injustice, repressed homosexual lust and the horrors of war are central themes of Billy Budd. The taut libretto, by E.M. Forster, is based on the short novel of the same title by Herman Melville, ranked among that author's work second only to Moby Dick. The Met mounts a realistic shipboard production, with good opportunities for the company's exceptional male chorus as the crew of the Indomitable.


The cast of this revival features baritone Nathan Gunn in the title role. Bass-baritone James Morris takes on the key role of John "Jemmy Legs" Claggart. This is the Met's first revival of the 1978 production to appear in 15 years. 

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Celibidache Conducts Bruckner

Symphony No. 7, live from Tokyo.
The mystic Sergiu Celibidache.
Hi folks. Thought I'd share some video footage from Tokyo, 1990 of the masterful Sergiu Celibidache conducting Bruckner's Seventh symphony. This performance features the Munich Philharmonic. Since "Celi" (as he was known), disdained the recording process and did not authorize his live performances for release during his lifetime, this performance is a posthumous release from Sony Classical.

The first of the final triptych of Bruckner symphonies, the Seventh was written following the death of Richard Wagner. The second movement, written as a tribute to Bruckner's friend and fellow composer, is the first movement in one of Bruckner's symphonies to incorporate Wagner tubas. Like most interpretations of this composer by this particular conductor, it's really beautiful and incredibly slow.

Enjoy.


Concert Review: Taking the Fifth

Herbert Blomstedt conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul Pelkonen

(Ed. Note: Superconductor reviews usually appear within 24 hours of attending a concert. Since I came down sick on Saturday afternoon, it's running now. Thanks for your patience.--P)

Conductor Herbert Blomstedt.
Photo by R. J. Muni.
The New York Philharmonic welcomed  Swedish conductor Herbert Blomstedt back to the podium of Avery Fisher Hall last week for a stellar program of Mozart and Tchaikovsky. 

A longtime presence at the San Francisco Symphony (where he served as music director for a decade), Mr. Blomstedt was born in the U.S. but grew up in Sweden. Now 85, his distinguished podium style features elegant, arching lyric lines and a brisk, business-like approach to making music. 

The concert opened with Mozart's Jeunehomme Concerto, led with a fine balance by soloist Garrick Ohlsson. Mr. Ohlsson, who looks more like a retired NFL tight end than an international concert pianist, played this music with a light touch that belied his big frame. 

Through the three movements, Mr. Ohlsson's big hands moved agilely, drawing out the playful aspects of the 21-year old Mozart's writing as well as the serious harmonic ideas that the composer would explore in operas like Idomeneo. Whether drawing sweet phrases in the slow movement or dazzling listeners with technical runs and arpeggiated figures in the finale, Mr. Ohlsson made the whole concerto look deceptively easy.

The Tchaikovsky Fifth stands at the center of the composer's late tryptich--a fate-driven work that draws inspiration from Beethoven as well as the composer's own lyric Russian style. It is also the most determinedly optimistic of these last three symphonies, standing between the tragic Fourth and the suicide note of the Pathetique.

Happily, this symphony is perfectly suited to the New York Philharmonic's strengths, a big, tempestuous work grounded around a motto theme. Sturdy brass playing--another specialty of this orchestra--is required. To all this, Mr. Blomstedt contributed propulsion, making the powerful motto theme dance where other conductors simply power ahead.

Mr. Blomstedt's leadership, expressive and vigorous without the benefit of a score, underlined the crucial relationship between the four movements of this symphony. In the Adagio, with its lonely horn-call that leads up to a huge climax, and in the courtly, almost rococo dance movement, the conductor underlined reappearance of the "motto" theme, showing the audience the coherent structure that Tchaikovsky was trying to achieve.

The conductor took an energetic approach to the finale, driving that famous march rhythm forward with a relentless, propulsive drive. Mr. Blomstedt also took the brief pause right before the coda very quickly. Some conductors pause too long, and an uninformed audience applauds too early. This performance brooked no such interruptions, ending in a powerful blaze of sound. 



When the Machine Breaks Down



No this is not an(other) article about the problematic set for the Met's Robert Lepage production of the Ring Cycle. 

I've been under the weather for the last three days, and not really been able to write anything. Also had to cancel plans to attend Sunday's Liszt recital with Pierre-Laurent Aimard at Lincoln Center.

Recovery is going well, and normal service is about to be resumed on Superconductor. 

Thank you for your patience.

Paul Pelkonen

Editor, Superconductor.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Happy Record Store Day!

A Superconductor Guide to Getting Your Groove On in New York City.

Today is Record Store Day, when the music industry and (more importantly)  music vendors focus their energies on the few venues left where you can still purchase music in its physical form, be it on vinyl or compact disc. 

With the closings of most of the big chain stores (not to mention a lot of the little specialty shops) there aren't too many places left. Here's my list of places to buy recorded classical music in New York City. Yes, Barnes and Nobles still sells music too (at two locations in Manhattan) but these places are a lot more fun.

12 W. 18th St.
This storefront on W. 18th St. is Mecca for music-lovers in New York City. Academy has an extensive inventory of classical CDs, LPs, and even a small section of cassettes. Inventory subdivided into baroque, opera, boxed sets and modern music, and they also sell rock, jazz, and DVDs.
Music Nirvana: the shoppers and shelves at Academy Records.
Academy is also a good place to sell your CDs, DVDs and vinyl, but vinyl purchases are arranged by appointment. Owners of large collections should call the shop to set up an appointment with their buyer. Your music must be in excellent-to-mint condition for it to be sold. 
Vinyl junkies should also check out Academy Annex in Williamsburg, which carries an astonish stock of 25,000 LPs. Academy Annex is located at 96 N. 6th St.

Formerly Gryphon Records, this small, cheerful shop at 233 W. 72nd used to exist in the shadow of a massive branch of HMV. Now, it's one of the few record stores remaining in the neighborhood. Westsider has a modest inventory of CDs in the front, with some unusual, out-of-print opera boxed sets popping up from time to time. They have an enormous stock of vinyl towards the back, and a respectable selection of books about music. Their buying is done at the parentshop, Westsider Books, located at 2246 Broadway.

This enormous emporium plunked down into the middle of Park Row in 1971, right by City Hall. Following the deaths of Borders, Virgin MegaStore, Tower Records, HMV, and Sam Goody/Musicland, (not to mention Circuit City, the Record Factory, Nobody Beats the WIZ, Record Hunter and Record Explosion!) At 23 Park Row, J&R is the last surviving major CD store in New York. Their classical and opera department (located upstairs and to the back at ) has knowledgeable employees and a wide selection of imports. Of course, the block-long chain of J&R shops also sells computers, iPods, blenders, and even electric guitars.

Not enough people know about the Juilliard Store, which has gone from being tucked away above Alice Tully Hall to being hidden in the nether regions of the conservatory building. In fact, it's  around the corner from Alice Tully Hall across from the Gourmet Garage.. Although their first business is sheet music, the Store carries in the neighborhood of 5-10,000 CDs, making them the only surviving store around Lincoln Center to buy recorded orchestral and chamber music. Apparently, the closings of Tower Records and Barnes and Nobles' Lincoln Center branch has been good for business.

Recently renovated, this snazzy shop in the lobby of the Metropolitan Opera House (it's past the ticket windows) has a pricey selection of Met merch (including jewelry, opera glasses,  the infamous wooden magnetic Ring desk toy and a flashy plastic LED light-up Ring of the Nibelung.) 

Behind all the ricketa-racketa is a good (if pricey) CD and DVD shop. They ONLY have operas, on CD and video with a selection of out-of-print titles pressed by ArchivMusik. A concierge service (launched last year) will order out-of-stock titles for patrons, in connection with Amazon.com. Open during the week, the shop closes during that evening's opera performance--usually after the first intermission. A discount of 10-20% is offered for members of the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

And one more...
In addition to selling furniture, clothing and house-hold goods, this chain of charitable institutions located around New York has quietly become a good place to buy vinyl and CDs. Selection varies widely, but the occasional classical gems can be found. They have a "no returns" policy, so caveat emptor. But for prices as low as $1 per CD, what do you really have to lose?

Friday, April 20, 2012

Concert Review: Celestial Mechanics

The American Symphony Orchestra plays George Crumb.
An appearance by composer George Crumb...
on a t-shirt. Image © Zazzle.com.

The American Symphony Orchestra specializes in "deep cuts": unusual pieces from outside the repertory. Occasionally, though, music director Leon Botstein focuses on contemporary American masters. At Carnegie Hall on Thursday night, Dr. Botstein presented the major orchestral works of George Crumb. The composer was in attendance.

This is unusual music, and Dr. Botstein had his players seated in an unusual configuration on the Carnegie Hall stage. Woodwinds formed a line across the front, with French horns on extreme stage left opposite a complicated percussion station. The double basses were in the back, changing the balance of sound considerably.

Dr. Crumb is best known for his quirky works for solo piano and chamber ensemble. The concert opened with his Variazioni, a work that served as the young composer's doctoral thesis at the University of Michigan. It starts with a simple, Bach-like theme that forms a tone-row, a serialist technique where notes are arranged in a manner ignoring the conventional system of scales and keys. 

This plaintive, moving theme served as a digression point for the rest of the work. At one point, the brass play a stately toccata. Strings intertwine with unusual percussion instruments, creating unearthly soundscapes. The piece ended where it began, with a reprise of the original theme. Dr. Botstein spoke briefly to the audience, and reprised the Toccata one more time.

Echoes of Time and the River shows the maturing composer experimentingfurther wih percussion. Gongs are crucial to this work, stationed on either side of the stage and carried about by musicians in a strange series of processions, either through the house or across the stage. These little parade maneuvers were announced with the ring of antique cymbals, echoed by gongs and the shake of a sistrum-like Chinese bell-tree. 

Echoes is part tone poem and part performance art, with interspersed sprechstimme texts. The brass joined the parade, forming a line across stage left, aiming the bells of their instruments squarely at the listeners, and then breathing through them, a hollow, ghostly sound familiar to anyone who has learned trombone. A little procession of wind players appeared too, gathering around a piano and playing short melodic lines as if to entertain the musician manning the keyboard. 

The orchestra was re-arranged again for Star-Child an apocalyptic oratorio-like piece that depicts a Biblical end to the world in terms familiar to listeners who know the Mahler Resurrection and the Berlioz Requiem. A rarity because of its staging challenges, this piece was originally commissioned by the New York Philharmonic during Pierre Boulez' fearlessly experimental administration.


This massive work features, in addition to a large orchestra,  small ensembles and soloists scattered about Carnegie Hall, seven trumpets (some using disposable aluminum pie plates as mutes) soprano soloist Audrey Luna, and two choral groups: the Brooklyn Youth Chorus and the men of the Collegiate Chorale.

This enormous piece begins with Music of the Spheres, a celestial drone on the strings and wind that permeates the entire 30-minute work. A dialogue began, with Ms. Luna pleading for divine mercy. She was  answered (in a manner recalling the old Peanuts® cartoons) by a trombonist using a metal mute to make his instrument sound voice-like.

The crushing second section (Musica Apocalyptica) featured the actual apocalypse in Mahlerian terms, with batteries of percussion, skittering strings and the seven spatially arranged trumpets who remained strangely silent during the Tuba Mirum. At this point, the still-silent Brooklyn Youth Chorus looked genuinely scared at the unfamiliar sonorities whirling forth from the orchestra.



The children finally sang in the last movement, another series of hymn-like calls and responses. They answered in clear, angelic voice, responding to the Latin text sung by Ms. Luna. She hit the dizzy heights required by the score, as the work swelled to a series of massive, celestial climaxes. Eventually, the drone faded into silence, and the composer rose from his box seat to receive the roar of approval from the audience.

Metropolitan Opera Preview: The Makropulos Case

Karita Mattila makes her bid for immortality.


The immortal diva: Karita Mattila.
Publicity photo for the Met's production of Tosca
by Brigitte Lacombe © 2006 The Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
To an operatic novice, Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Case may seem as remote and unapproachable as its enigmatic title character. However, this opera, which centers around a centuries-old lawsuit and humanity's obsession with eternal life, is one of the Czech composer's most satisfying creations. Jirí Behlolávek conducts.

The complex plot of The Makropulos Case (Věc Makropulos is the Czech title) delves into the art of opera itself. The central figure is the mysterious Emilia Marty (Karita Mattila), a world-famous opera singer who interjects herself into a long-lasting legal procedure stemming from a lawsuit: Gregor v. Prus. Her object: to obtain a copy of the chemical formula that her father invented, a formula that will extend her life another 300 years.

Science fiction? Maybe. Janáček based his libretto on the play of the same name by fellow Czech Karel Capek, the writer best remembered for coining the word "robot" in his play R.U.R.. The opera shifts through the composer's frequently visited sonic world: minor-key chords interjected with delicate fabrics of wind and strings. The voices are always to the fore, as maximum clarity is essential to Janáček's style.


Ms. Mattila is just the third singer to take on the difficult title role at the Met. The opera was first performed at the Met (in English) in 1996, with soprano Jessye Norman in her last role at the opera house.

The production's premiere was scheduled for Jan. 5, 1996. On that night, tenor Richard Versaille, playing the role of Vitek died onstage after singing his first line ("You only live so long.") While up on a ladder, Mr. Versaille suffered a heart attack and died, plummeting to the stage.

The curtain fell swiftly, and the performance was cancelled.

The next show was scheduled for January 8, and was cancelled because of a blizzard. The opera finally premiered on January 11, 1996. Further revivals of Makropoulos in 1998 and 2001, were sung in Czech and featured Catherine Malfitano as Emilia Marty.

Recording Recommendation:
There are a few recordings of this opera. Most are in the catalogue under the title Věc Makropulos. If you don't speak Czech, the English-language set (also conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras) is an excellent choice.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Charles Mackerras (Decca, 1978)
Emilia Marty: Elizabeth Söderström


Emilia Marty was the great Elizabeth Söderström's favorite role. She is marvelous here in the midst of an almost all-Czech cast, carefully conducted by Janáček expert Sir Charles Mackerras. This is part of the English conductor's cycle of major operas by this composer, and an essential. It is also available as part of a budget box set of the operas that also includes The Cunning Little Vixen, Jenufa and Kat'a Kabanova.

English National Opera cond. Sir Charles Mackerras (Chandos, 2008)
Emilia Marty: Cheryl Barker

For the listener not fluent in Czech, this English language version (made at the English National Opera) provides a valuable gateway into understanding  Janáček's complex masterpiece. Cheryl Barker hits some astonishing high notes as Emilia, and draws real pathos in the Tristan-like finale. A live recording with minimal audience noise and a fine supporting cast.

Return to the Metropolitan Opera Season Preview!

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Concert Review: Choose Your Mountain

The Juilliard Orchestra tackles the Alpine Symphony.

"Spock, you didn't tell me there were two Alpine Symphonies last night!"
Image from Star Trek V: The Final Frontier © 1989 Paramount Pictures.
As a concert-goer, I was faced with an unusual dilemma on Wednesday night. Two competing performances of Richard Strauss' Alpine Symphony were being offered at the same time: one at Avery Fisher Hall by the Juilliard Orchestra; the other at Carnegie Hall by the European Youth Orchestra conducted by Vladimir Ashkenazy. 

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

City Opera: Vagabonds No More


The New York City Opera announces its 2012-2013 season.

"He'll flip ya. Flip ya fo' real."
At today's presser, General Manager George Steel
demonstrates his kung fu approach to opera management.
Photo by the author.
by Paul Pelkonen
After a bizarre 2011 that saw the New York City Opera leave its long-time home at Lincoln Center, next year sees the opera company settling down.

Well, sort of. 

At today's press conference, the company announced its 2012-13 season: four new productions built entirely in-house. Board Chairman Chuck Wall announced deals with Brooklyn Academy of Music, City Center, agreeing to split the bulk of its performances between those two venues for the next three years. They will perform two operas in each venue, keeping to the model of just four shows in each run.

Following Mr. Wall's announcement, George Steel took the podium to present the next season, which will take place in the late winter/early spring of 2013.

Next season consists of four new productions of venerable operas by known composers. It should be noted that these are not "partner" or "import" shows, but productions that will be entirely created by New York City Opera personnel. In the maverick style that has characterized Mr. Steel's administration, the operas are all works that exist, at best, on the outer fringe of the standard repertory.

Powder Her Face (Feb. 15-23 at Brooklyn Academy of Music)
The season opens at BAM in February, with Thomas Ádes' first opera Powder Her Face, in a new production by director Jay Schelb, who has had nice things written about him in Time Out New York. Powder is a merry scandal-driven drama focusing on British bad girl Margaret Campbell, whom the press dubbed "The Dirty Duchess" (not to be confused with La Cieca.)

Analysis: Mr. Ádes' work is currently in vogue, with the rival Metropolitan Opera staging the New York premiere of The Tempest next season. Powder was first staged in New York at BAM's Majestic Theater in 1997.

The Turn of the Screw (Feb. 24-March 2 at BAM)
Despite its title, this is not a re-telling of last year's City Opera labor negotiations with the orchestra and chorus, but an adaptation of Henry James' short novel of a governor, two very weird children and two ghosts. The wrenching story of innocent children corrupted by not-so-innocent forces, Screw will be directed by Sam Buntrock.

Analysis: This is an interesting choice, particularly considering the company's last foray into the supernatural: a disastrous 2011 production of Stephen Schwarz' Séance on a Wet Afternoon. It should be noted that while City Opera last Turned the Screw in 1996 with an Emmy-nominated production by Mark Lamos, this is an all-new staging.

Mosè en Egitto (April 14-20 at City Center.)
The company moves (back) to City Center in April. Since Passover is early next year, observant opera lovers will be able to enjoy Rossini's Mosè en Egitto, a three-act re-creation of the events depicted in the Book of Exodus. Michael Counts, whose imaginative direction was the best thing about 2011's production of Monodramas returns to lead the opera company to the land of manna and matzoh.

Analysis: City Opera reaches deep into the Rossini catalogue for this Biblical drama from 1818. This is an Italian opera, and (almost) completely different from Moïse et Pharaon, the composer's later recycling of the same libretto for the Paris stage in 1827. Presenting Rossini that requires visual flair and spectacle is a welcome risk for this company. Mr. Steel, we're ready for our close-up.


La Périchole (April 21-27 at City Center.)
The season ends with La Périchole, a Jacques Offenbach rarity mounted by house favorite director Christopher Alden. This opera-bouffe is a comic romp about class warfare in Peru, making it the second opera (that I can think of) to be set in that exotic land.

Analysis: This is an odd choice, considering that New Yorkers are eagerly anticipating Mr. Alden's Nozze di Figaro (now slated for 2014) which would complete his Da Ponte trilogy and probably allow City Opera to make a mint by running it in repertory with Cosí fan tutte and Don Giovanni. George Steel has tried his hand at odd French repertory before (the 2010 revival of L'Etoile comes to mind) with mixed results, but Mr. Alden is critically acclaimed.
Watch the opening scene of Powder Her Face.

Superconductor Interview: From Genesis to Orchestration

He knows what he likes: Tony Banks.
Photo alteration by Captured Epoch. Source: Deviant Art.
Keyboard man Tony Banks now writes classical music.
by Paul Pelkonen
Over the 45-year career of the band Genesis, members of the British progressive rock group have crossed over into other endeavors with great success. Former singer Peter Gabriel is a rock icon, who does much to popularize world music. Phil Collins plays big-band jazz and, (like Mr. Gabriel) enjoyed a chart-topping solo career. Recently, keyboardist Tony Banks, a life-long (and founding) member of the group, has successfully launched his career as a composer of classical music.

"In Genesis, in the early days we played with form a lot more," he says in a telephone interview with Superconductor. "In the later years we were writing more conventionally in terms of how the songs were structured."

Mr. Banks has a new CD out. Six Pieces for Orchestra is his second venture into the classical stratosphere, a collection of orchestral instrumentals and "songs without words."  He adds, "I wanted to throw all structure out the window."

Monday, April 16, 2012

Concert Review: On Wings of Fire

Esa-Pekka Salonen brings his Violin Concerto to Boston.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Photo by Clive Barda for
EsaPekkaSalonen.co.uk
On Friday night, the Boston Symphony Orchestra welcomed Esa-Pekka Salonen to the podium in Symphony Hall with a program featuring his own Violin Concerto with soloist Leila Josefowicz, bracketed by 20th century favorites by Ravel and Stravinsky. With no music director at the helm of the BSO this season, 2011-2012 has been a year of guest conductors. So a Boston visit by the dynamic Mr. Salonen--his first since 1988--was a welcome occasion for subscribers.

Mr. Salonen, who served a 17-year term as music director of the Los Angeles Philharmonic, is equally reputed as a composer as well as a conductor, but this weekend's concerts mark the first time that the BSO has played his music. The concert opened with Ravel's Le Tombeau de Couperin, played with baroque delicacy. Mr. Salonen achieved his trademark "clean" sound, leading these four short movements without a baton. 

He then picked up a microphone to address the audience before his concerto was performed. He explained the history of the work's composition in 2008, its relationh to his difficult departure from Los Angeles, and its autobiographical nature. He also included some brief anecdotes to give the audience some valuable context before Ms. Josefowicz joined him onstage.

Mr. Salonen's concerto is on a vast scale, with four movements that require athletic playing and a firm command of the orchestra. Those qualities were present here, though the performance in Boston was not quite as raucous as one heard two weeks before in Philadelphia. Ms. Josefowicz shone in the difficult violin part, scraping out whole chords across the strings and chivvying out athletic runs up the neck of her instrument.

As explained by Mr. Salonen, the two central movements: Pulse I and Pulse II offer contrasting rhythmic ideas. The first is based around the composer's own heart arrhythmia, recalling Mahler's 9th Symphony in its faltering meter. The second evokes a girl that the composer met in his student years: a café waitress in Rome by day, a latex-clad club kid by night. 

This movement is the most gripping of the four. It is dominated by heavy, urban rhythms and percussion--including a full-on rock drum solo, almost unprecedented in a violin concerto--had arresting power. The last movement, Adieu resolved in a new, brilliant chord unheard before in the four movements: Mr. Salonen's way of expressing an optimistic future.

The concert ended with the full score of Stravinsky's Firebird ballet, a work that is familiar to BSO attendees from the tenure of former Music Director Seiji Ozawa. Here, Mr. Salonen chose a quicksilver approach to this enormous score, conjuring Stravinsky's folk-based melodies and washes of impressionistic orchestral color. He led the Firebird as its composer intended, as a sort of opera score without any words.

Some conductors are dull to watch on the podium as they beat time--but not Mr. Salonen. He sometimes turned his back completely on one half of the orchestra, leading the violins with laser-like focus or exhorting the woodwinds in their intricate lines. By the time the piece reached the final, celebratory dance, the conductor was red-faced. His face blazed with the effort as the orchestra rose to a fiery height, crashing down in the last chords. 

Friday, April 13, 2012

Concert Review: From Y to Z

Jaap van Zweden and Yuja Wang debut with the Philharmonic.
Conductor Jaap van Zweden.
Photo by Bert Hulselmans © 2012 IMG Artists.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
On Thursday night, the New York Philharmonic returned to Avery Fisher Hall. This concert was a double debut: the first Philharmonic performance conducted by Jaap von Zweden and the subscription debut of star pianist Yuja Wang. A former concert violinist, Mr. van Zweden is now the music director of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Opera Review: The Roman, the Witches, and the Wardrobe

Gotham Chamber Opera celebrates 10 years with Il Sogno del Scipione.
by Paul Pelkonen
Three on a mattress: Christine Biller (with shoe) Marie-Éve Munger and Michele Angelini
in Il Sogno del Scipione. Photo by Erin Baiano © 2012 Gotham Chamber Opera.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's Il Sogno del Scipione ("Scipio's Dream") was written in 1772, when the composer was just 16 years old. Although the works of Mozart's adolescence have enjoyed some popularity in recent years, this allegorical opera seria has faced a long, hard rehabilitation. In 1913, musicologist Edward Dent labeled it as "formal and uninspired."

Happily, Wednesday night's premiere of the Gotham Chamber Opera's new production of Scipione (mounted by director Christopher Alden to commemorate the company's 10th anniversary) found much dramatic gold in this work. Scipione takes place almost entirely in the subconscious of its title character (sung by Michele Angelini). This is not the Roman general whose battlefield skill defeated Hannibal and won the Second Punic War--but his nephew and heir. What's really at stake though, is the conflict between goddesses: Constanza (Constancy, sung by Marie-Ève Munger) and Fortuna, (Fortune) played by Susannah Biller.

Mr. Alden places all three singers in bed together at the start of the one-act piece, an idea which recalls the opening of Der Rosenkavalier. The action is confined to one room, with no exits save the window. There is luxuriant shag carpeting, a wardrobe, and globe lighting that descends to indicate the heavenly spheres. Moving the work to New York (or possibly an IKEA® showroom) Mr. Alden explained (in a program note) that he chose a dramatic sensibility derived from the 1997 Robert Downey film Two Girls and a Guy.

Mr. Angelini is the major vocal discovery here, a flexable lyric tenor with an agile portamento and a pleasing, rounded low end. His sky-scraping final aria "Di che si l'arbitra'" was a heroic, compelling vocal workout, all the more so since the singer dressed himself, complete with tying a tie in a full Windsor knot without dropping a note. He was helped by the crisp leadership of Neal Goren in the Lynch Theater's small orchestra pit.

The two female leads were less pleasing. Mozart wrote considerably challenging arias for his two goddesses, but the singers added shrieks and stretched for difficult notes high above the stave. The personifications of Constancy and Fortune serves as harbingers of the Queen of the Night, who arrived some 20 years later. However, the young composer did not have the economy of thought that pervades Zauberflöte, and their long string of da capo arias proved exhausting.

Of the two goddesses, Ms. Biller excelled at chewing the scenery while rotating through a seemingly endless supply of costumes, from cowgirl to dominatrix to acid-green Coco Chanel. "A chi serena io giro" has a plethora of virtuoso passages. This leggy singer managed to make these over-written repeats more fun by moving around and acting as she switched outfits and moods. Constancy is naturally more restrained dramatically. Ms. Munger brought an even higher level of virtuosity to her part, tossing off arias like "Biancheggia il mar lo scoglio" and drawing her rival's wrath.

Far better was soprano Rachel Willis Sørensen in the small but crucial role of Licenza. This character is an Epilogue, addressing Mozart's patron and expressing good will towards the audience. Ms. Sørensen had an appealing stage presence, a plush, potent tone and her own acrobatics above the stave that never ventured into shrillness. A winner of the Metropolitan Opera's 2010 National Council Auditions, she is a singer on the way up.

The rest of the cast exists mostly in small parts. Of these, Scipio's uncle Publio (Arthur Espirito) and father Emilio (Chad A. Johnson) delivered impressive arias with their share of physical effort. Mr. Espirito did the entire performance on crutches with one leg tied back to indicate an amputation. Mr. Johnson arrived onstage in a wheelchair, emerging from a near catatonic state to sing with a pleasing tenor.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Opera Review: The Sword's Upside-Down

The Collegiate Chorale takes on The Mikado.
by Paul Pelkonen
Amy Justman, (Peep-Bo) Kelli O'Hara (Yum-Yum) and Lauren Worsham (Pitti-Sing)
on their way home from school. Photo by Erin Baiano © 2012 The Collegiate Chorale.
Huge vases of cherry blossoms stood at either end of the Carnegie Hall stage on Tuesday night. The plain white plaster panels at the back of that famous stage were adorned with a projection of Mount Fuji. The Collegiate Chorale was in place, behind the American Symphony Orchestra.

Then came the announcement. "Ladies and gentlemen, we regret to inform you that the part of Pooh-Bah, scheduled to be sung by Jonathan Freeman, will be sung by Jonathan Freeman."

This bit of wit was the perfect introduction to Tuesday's endearing, if sometimes sloppy performance of Gilbert and Sullivan's Mikado, the witty work that skewered Victorian British society by moving it to the absurdly named Town of Titipu in W.S. Gilbert's version of Japan.

Under the direction of Ted Sperling, both Chorale and Orchestra delivered a fizzy account of the overture and first scene. Mr. Sperling chose fast tempos, driving the famous themes forward. This set up the entrance of Nanki-Poo (South Pacific star Jason Danielly.) He emerged, instrument in hand from the brass section. But instead of the usual Japanese shamisen, Mr. Danielly carried the instrument from the libretto, a serviceable second trombone.

He was soon joined by a trio of fine comic baritones, well known on Broadway. Mr. Freeman (Roger Debris in The Producers)  as Pooh-Bah, Steve Rosen (Spamalot) as Pish-Tush and the energetic, loose comic Christopher Fitzgerald (Wicked) as Ko-Ko, the Lord High Executioner. In a loose black hipster suit, an enormous, shabby top hat and an (upside-down) katana, Mr. Fitzgerald cut a memorable figure as the former cheap tailor. More importantly, his comic energy drove the show, even if he occsionally flubbed a line.

In W.S. Gilbert's libretto, the Three Little Maids enter late in the first act. Here, they fared better than the men. Kelli O'Hara (also a star of South Pacific) was a strong Yum-Yum, bringing warmth and self-regard to "The Sun Whose Rays." City Opera veteran Lauren Worsham was even better as Pitti-Sing, stealing hearts with a flash of an eye and a whistling air. Amy Justman had less to do as Peep-Bo, but brought able support.

Katisha's entrance is always a brilliant piece of theater: Sir Arthur Sullivan's parody of several Wagner heroines (Brunnhilde, Kundry, Isolde) all at once. Victoria Clark brought the requisite voice, a full-powered dramatic soprano and stage presence to Nanki-Poo's would-be fiancée. She threw herself into the part of the vengeance-seeking diva, at one point decking Mr. Fitzgerald during "There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast." To his credit, he got up, recovered, and they finished the merry duet. 

The last character to enter in The Mikado is the title character, given the appropriate pomp and circumstance with a genuine Japanese chorus accompanying his procession. Chuck Cooper was comic and magesterial, evoking a psychotic glee in "A more humane Mikado" and letting out a giggle of pleasure as he listed both crimes and punishments. The finale proceeded smoothly, whipped up to a bubbling frenzy as the world of topsy-turvy righted itself and all was well in the Town of Titipu.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Superconductor Interview: On the Roof with Alexandre Tharaud

The French pianist plays, then talks to Superconductor.
by Paul Pelkonen
A man and his keys Alexandre Tharaud
The words "piano recital" conjure images of the big stage, a jet-black Steinway grand  under a bright spotlight. For pianist Alexandre Tharaud, his April 9 recital at Le Poisson Rouge had a very different atmosphere. Mr. Tharaud took the stage with a lean, casual grace, casting spells with longkh fingers on the (baby) grand in the underground Greenwich Village club.

Nicolas Cage Embarks on New Music Career

From YouTube: Cage performs Cage.
Cage match: actor Nicolas Cage in the (dreadful) 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, directed by Neil LaBute.
Image © 2006 Warner Bros. Pictures/Sony Entertainment.
Hollywood action star Nicolas Cage (real name Nicolas Coppola) explores the experimental music of John Cage (real name John Cage) in this YouTube video. I didn't create it. I wish I had. The video was originally posted by user aslucas07. (Thanks!)

Enjoy...quietly.



Monday, April 9, 2012

Recordings Review: I Pity the Fool


P. Craig Russel's comic book version of Parsifal.
© 1976 by the artist. 

Image from Montsalvat: The Parsifal Pages.
Marek Janowski's new Berlin Parsifal.
by Paul Pelkonen
This live recording of Wagner's Parsifal was laid down a year ago (April 8, 2011) in a single Berlin concert. It is the third entry in Marek Janowski's ambitious plan to record and release all ten Wagner operas on PentaTone, an independent German label that specializes in multi-channel hybrid Super Audio CDs.

Parsifal is Wagner's last opera, and the only work that the composer finished following the opening of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus. Originally, Wagner intended that this work be restricted to performance at Bayreuth. This was not designed to create some sort of weird  cult, but to ensure the financial solvency of his new theater for years to come.

Parsifal is a quasi-religious drama (Wagner called it a "stage-consecrating festival play") that retells the story of a "pure fool" (the title character) and his quest to redeem the Knights of the Holy Grail. Their King lies wounded, stabbed with the Spear of Longinus, which pierced the side of Christ as he suffered on the cross.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Concert Review: Tosca at the Cabaret

Patricia Racette records standards.

Ed. Note (A clarification: this wasn't exactly a concert, but an invitation-only recording session. Before delving into it, I'd like to thank composer/producer Glen Roven for the gracious invitation, and my good friend Singing Scholar for putting the set list details on her excellent Opera Obsession Blog.)
Patricia Racette.
Photo © PatriciaRacette.com.

There is nothing more remarkable than hearing a big voice in a tiny, intimate space.

Such was the case with Thursday evening's recording session with soprano Patricia Racette, who was taking a well-deserved break from the verismo roles that are her bread and butter to record Diva on Detour, a live album of Broadway, songbook standards, and songs by Edith Piaf. 

Opera stars don't always get good results when they attempt cross-over repertory, but as the charming soprano assured us, this was music that she grew up singing. Accompanied by the light-fingered pianist Craig Terry, Ms. Racette opened with a quicksilver medley of "I Got Rhythm" and "Get Happy", injecting an exuberant mood into the small recording studio. 

The mood darkened with Jimmy Van Heusen's  "Here's That Rainy Day," a Sinatra favorite that is all too pertinent in this age of high unemployment and government cutbacks. Vernon Duke's "Not a Care in the World" continued the theme of economic depression, which was lifted by a soulful, pain-drenched reading of "Angel Eyes." Ms. Racette then offered a peep into the hectic world of opera with "I'm Calm," playfully mocking her own backstage persona.

She then shifted into the repertory of Edith Piaf, soaring through the great French singer's vocal lines with ease and idiomatic delivery. She inhabited "Milord" and "Padam" with fierce dignity, drawing long spans of notes and producing a crescendo effect as she moved from song to song. The beloved "La vie en Rose" followed, with the singer delivering France's other national anthem with potency and warmth. 

The theme of the set moved to relationships, with the serious ("The Man that Got Away") nimbly paired with parody ("To Keep My Love Alive.") Mr. Terry's unique arrangement of Come Rain or Come Shine, built around the C Major Prelude from Bach's first book of The Well Tempered Clavier bridged musical styles across the centuries, creating a quite lovely, timeless effect. 

The climax of the set was a devastating triple-knockout punch of "You've Changed," "Guess Who I Saw Today", and Cole Porter's mighty "So In Love", drawn from his best musical, Kiss Me, Kate. Ms. Racette brought all of her operatic experience inhabiting the broken heroines of Verdi and Puccini to bear on this miniature three-act tragedy, presenting a raw, naked light on the heartbreak of obsession and failed romance.

She returned to the warm arms of Edith Piaf for the finale, the singer's glorious "Mon Dieu." For this fearless artist, who has walked her own path in the course of a remarkable career on the stage, it was a fitting statement of artistic purpose. After a brief pause, she ended with the words of the great Stephen Sondheim. The song was "Not a Day Goes By."

Diva on Detour is available for sale from GPR Records. And it's highly recommended.

Natalie Dessay Out of Traviata Premiere

Hei-Kyung Hong gets the nod as Violetta.
by Paul Pelkonen
A trip to IKEA, on gossamer wings: Act I of La Traviata at the Met.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The saga of the Little Red Dress continues. 

Last night the Metropolitan Opera press office quietly announced that tonight's performance of La Traviata will be sung by soprano Hei-Kyung Hong. Ms. Hong will replace Natalie Dessay, who is ill.

It is not known at press time whether Ms. Dessay will be available to sing the remaining seven performances in the run, starting with next Tuesday night and leading up to the Met Live in HD broadcast on April 14. 

Willy Decker's production of La Traviata, which bowed at the Met on December 31, 2010, is more physical than most productions of this Verdi opera. Violetta is required to careen across a slanted, curved acting surface, to be hoisted on a red couch by the choristers, and to meet the physical challenges of the characters medical condition (she is dying of tubeculosis) head-on. 

The production, which was originally mounted at Salzburg with Anna Netrebko (currently singing Manon at the Met) premiered with Marina Poplavskaya making a splash in the title role. Ms. Hong was the "cover" for those performances, and also sang the dress rehearsal earlier this week when Ms. Dessay announced that she was ill.

Regulars at the Metropolitan Opera are familiar with this talented Korean soprano, who has been something of a fixture at the house over a long career. She has sung over 300 performances at the theater, starting in 1984. Her wide repertory includes Butterfly, Gilda, the Countess (in the Marriage of Figaro), Liu, and of course, Violetta.

Last season, Ms. Hong was thrust into the limelight as Juliette in Gounod's Roméo et Juliette  after soprano Angela Gheorghiu abruptly cancelled her entire run, claiming illness. 

This year's cast also features Matthew Polenzani as Alfredo Germont, and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky as Giorgio Germont.

Recordings Guide: Time Becomes Space

A Guide to Parsifal recordings.
by Paul Pelkonen
Act III of Parsifal from Bayreuth 1971. 
Franz Crass (standing), James King (seated) Gwyneth Jones (kneeling)
Wagner's final opera (or as he dubbed it: "stage consecrating festival drama")  was written for the unique acoustics of the Bayreuth Festspielhaus, the theater designed and built by Wagner In 1876 for the first performances of the Ring.


With a libretto concerned with sin, suffering self-denial and salvation, (not to mention a final act that takes place on Good Friday) Parsifal finds its way into a lot of CD players and iPods this time of year. Here's a quick guide to the best of the many recordings in the catalogue. And yes, three of them are from Bayreuth.

Bayreuth Festival 1951, 1962 cond. Hans Knappertsbusch
"Kna" was one of the greatest Wagner conductors of the 20th century, with a special affinity for this opera. From the depths of the Bayreuth pit, he lent the music a majestic weight, power and sense of pacing. There are two commercially available recordings, the mono 1951 set on Teldec, and the stereo 1962 set on Philips. Both have well-deserved legendary status, but the Philips set has better sound, despite the audible coughing in the audience.

Bayreuth Festival 1971 cond. Pierre Boulez
Boulez conducts the fastest Parsifal on record, getting the opera in at three and a half hours. He has an excellent cast, with James King, Franz Crass and Gwyneth Jones (on a good night) giving stellar performances. This is a delicate performance, with transparent textures that offer a whole new way of listening to the score.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelik 1980
Shelved by Deutsche Grammophon in favor of the award-winning (but overrated) Berlin set conducted by Herbert von Karajan, this is the hidden gem among Parsifal recordings.

The Czech conductor is blessed with a strong cast, headed by James King (again) and Kurt Moll. This conductor has a unique understanding of the opera, and it is a shame that this brilliant set languished in the vaults for 23 years.

Bayreuth Festival 1985 cond. James Levine
James Levine has recorded Parsifal twice. This live set from Bayreuth (recorded in 1985) is the better one, and features Waltraud Meier's earliest appearances as Kundry, the role that has come to define her career. (She's recorded the role four times and appears in four live videos of the opera.)

Levine adopted ultra-slow speeds and an ultra-romantic interpretation of the score, chosen by the conductor to clash with the controversial staging by Götz Friedrich. Currently available as part of a large Wagner box set containing all the operas in recordings made at Bayreuth.

Berlin Philharmonic cond. Daniel Barenboim 1991
The first of Daniel Barenboim's Wagner cycle, this is a strong reading of the opera featuing the Israeli maestro's unique, elastic way with the score. This is a studio recording, with fine, crisp digital sound. Siegfried Jerusalem is a keeper in the title role, and has good chemistry with Waltraud Meier.




Hans Knappertsbusch conducts Parsifal at Bayreuth.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

At the Bust of Gustav Mahler

A brief encounter at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Gustav Mahler by A. Rodin.
Photo from the Metropolitan Museum of Art site.

It happened in front of the bust of Gustav Mahler. 

I was in the Modern Art wing of the Metropolitan Museum, spending an afternoon (following today's noontime press conference announcing the Met's concert and lecture  schedule for 2012) traipsing around the museum. I visited my usual suspects: Musical Instruments, Arms and Armor, the Greek and Roman wing and the new Islamic Art exhibit.

I had stopped in front of Auguste Rodin's bust of Gustav Mahler, a bronze cast of the composer's head without his trademark pince-nez.
I turned to the tall, broad-shouldered fellow standing next to me, looking at the sculpture, a frozen bronze of the composer's famous head, capturing the swept-up hair, the finely formed cheekbones, the vulpine lower jaw. 

I said, "You know, there are two of them."

He said, "Oh yes?"

I burbled on. "Yes, there are two busts. One is in Lincoln Center at the Philharmonic. Whenever I take my friends to the Philharmonic I tell them 'Meet me at Mahler.' 

(I later found out that Rodin cast a number of Mahler busts, but that's not important right now.)

"He's my favorite composer," the other man said.

I said: "Really. Which symphony is your favorite?" by way of continuing the conversation.

He thought a minute. "The Second...and the Fifth."

I nodded and silently held up seven fingers. He smiled. "The Seventh. I like that one too. Actually," he added, "I'm a conductor."

"Oh," I said, trying to hide my surprise. "Where do you conduct?" 

"I am from Tashkent," he said. "My name is Aziz." 
Aziz Shokhamikov. Photo provided by Jonathan Wentworth and Associates.
A later Google search revealed my new friend to be Aziz Shohkamikov, an up-and coming Uzbekistani conductor. In 2010, he placed second in the International Mahler Conducting Competition, a springboard to a budding international career. But here, we were just two guys talking Mahler. 

I introduced myself, handing him my card and explaining about my blog and what it is that I do. That accomplished, we went back to talking about Mahler.

"Who is your favorite interpreter of Mahler?" Aziz asked. 

"I like Boulez," I said. "Boulez and Sinopoli, because they're so different from each other."

"Sinopoli? Is that with the Dresden Staatskapelle?"

"Only one of them," I said. "Only Das Lied von der Erde which he recorded before he died. The symphonies are all with the Philharmonia."

"I conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle last year," he said. "At the Semperoper."

"I saw them once, with Sinopoli," I returned. "He conducted an all-Strauss program at Carnegie Hall. I saw them last year,with Daniel Harding conducting." 

And so it went. We talked "shop" for a few more minutes, exchanged a few more words about Mahler, and went on our way. In reflection, our chance meeting says something profound and marvelous about the artistic importance of this museum, and of this city of mine. Only here, on a sunny Spring day in this city, would it happen to be that the one fellow I get into a conversation with was an up-and-coming conductor.

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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.