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Our motto: "Critical thinking in the cheap seats." Unbiased, honest classical music and opera opinions, occasional obituaries and classical news reporting, since 2007. All written content © 2019 by Paul J. Pelkonen. For more about Superconductor, visit this link. For advertising rates, click this link. Follow us on Facebook.

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Concert Review: Atlanta Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall

Robert Spano
The Atlanta Symphony Orchestra is unique among American ensembles for their unswerving dedication to choral music, a legacy from the time when Robert Shaw was their music director. On Saturday night, Robert Spano continued that tradition, bringing the orchestra's performance of Leos Janacek's Glagolitic Mass at Carnegie Hall.

The concert opened with Fratres by esteemed Estonian composer Arvo Pärt. The strings undulated, revealing a series of simple, repeated chords. They were accompanied by a sole percussionist (playing floor tom and a single clave who provided gentle punctuation to the non-melody. The mystic, minimalist cloud of sound that floated in the air and simply dissipates.

The full orchestra arrived for the Suite from Béla Bartók's ballet The Miraculous Mandarin. Music director Robert Spano brought forth the thunderous clatter of Bartók's score with precise control over the thundering brass and difficult cross-rhythms from the multiple percussionists. The lengthy oboe and clarinet obbligatos in the score require heroic effort from their soloists--and the Atlanta winds rose to the challenge. One complaint: the Suite contains the first two-thirds of the 30-minute ballet. It would have been preferable to hear the entire work.

Leoš Janáček's Glagolitic Mass translates the Roman Catholic liturgy to Old Church Slavonic, the language spoken by Christians in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) before the standardization of the Latin church text. (The title refers to the Glagolitic alphabet that was used frequently in medieval Bohemia). Janáček was not a religious man, but the rock-solid power of his musical invention cannot be questioned.

Mr. Spano led a vigorous performance of the opening Intrada. But it was when the magnificent ASO Chorus lifted their voices in the Kyrie that the full measure of Janáček's genius was revealed. Soprano Twyla Robinson soared over the Kyrie and delivered some fine vocal moments in the Gloria. Monica Groop, the Finnish mezzo-soprano, had the best voice of the four, but not enough music to sing. Burik Bilgili has a full, pleasing bass instrument, but tenor John Mac Master was loud and unsubtle. He seemed to be grappling with the text of the Credo. The four vocal soloists took turns in sections of the CredoSanctus and Agnus Dei, creating a cathedral of sound, buttressed by the steady chorus.

Organ soloist Peter Mashall played his difficult solo with utter fearlessness. The Mass features everything that is wonderful about this composer. Janáček's trademarks include odd chords and rhythms, angular, folk-inspired melodies, and the sunny, wilderness textures that recall the best pages of his operatic works.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Keeping Up With The Strausses

On Sunday afternoon at 1:30, the City Opera will revive its stellar production of Intermezzo at Lincoln Center.

Richard Strauss
This is a rare opportunity to experience this lesser-known opera by Richard Strauss. Like the Cit Opera's other fall offering, (Leonard Bernstein's A Quiet Place) the Strauss opera has a domestic setting, and has struggled to find its own place in the repertory.

Perhaps that's because Strauss based this little comedy on his own life. He wrote the libretto himself, renaming the central character "Robert Storch." The plot deals with a real incident in Strauss' marriage, involving some Vienna Philharmonic tickets, a misunderstanding, and his wife, Pauline, here renamed "Christine."

As with most Strauss operas, Intermezzo has its moments of orchestral virtuosity depicting moments in everyday life. Memorable moments include the musical depiction of a backstage card game, (Strauss loved to play cards and would regularly take his fellow musicians to the cleaners before a performance) and a skiing holiday.

The part of Christine is a challenge for any soprano. (Strauss' wife was a professional singer herself, and her husband wrote the part accordingly.) Here, Mary Dunleavy tackles the role, which was originated in this production by the great Lauren Flanigan. Expect a review to appear in Superconductor sometime next week.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Telecast Review: The Return of Pierre Boulez

Pierre Boulez leading the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
Photo © 2009 Todd Rosenberg/Chicago Symphony Orchestra
When Riccardo Muti announced that he would be unable to fulfill his commitments as Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, music lovers across North America took a deep breath. But when the 85-year old Pierre Boulez agreed to conduct the orchestra's appearance on PBS' Great Performances, those same music lovers breathed a sigh of relief. When the program was announced as Mahler's Seventh Symphony, they smiled.

The Mahler Seventh is the unloved stepchild of the composer's major orchestral works. Over five movements, it charts a strange, nighttime journey across lakes, up mountain passes, and through shadows that reek of the underworld. Most bizarre is the fnial Rondo, where arching walls of trumpets and cascading horns evoke Wagner's Die Meistersinger in a blaze of sonic sunlight.

Mr. Boulez led a carefully controlled performance. The march figures of the first movement were kept to a strict beat, with minimal hand movements drawing powerful waves of sound from the orchestra. Rumbling basses and bassoons filled in orchestral colors of blue and black. The tenorhorn solo (played here on a baritone tuba) evokes a mysterious mission, and the riotous marches and stumbling waltz that follows indicates that that mission might have ended at a local public house.

The first Nachtmusik continued this trend, with the warm tones of the Chicago horns leading Mahler's mysterious mountain trek. The Schattenhaft third movement sounded spooky and spiky in Mr. Boulez' hands, with its forward-looking shrieks in the strings evoking the modern sound-world that would follow Mahler's work. The fourth movement (a second Nachtmusik blended the solo violin against an unusual backdrop of horns, mandolin and guitar. The impression of gentle peace, of conflict resolved and rest earned held sway.

The charging Rondo came last, with the Meistersinger theme front and center. The brass dominate this movement, fighting upstream against a headlong, fugal rhythm that sounds like Bach gone mad. This is Mahler at his most diatonic. A century after the composer's death, the motives for this weird, noisy finale are still obscure. But no matter.  The brass played gloriously, with trumpets ringing out and trombones sliding swiftly down the scale as the horns drove the theme to its bright, blinding climax.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The New York Philharmonic in North Korea

Complete performance of New York's most treasured orchestra playing Antonin Dvorak's Symphony No. 9 in E Minor "From the New World", in Pyongyang, North Korea. Lorin Maazel conducts the historic occasion. Enjoy.

First Movement: Adagio; Allegro Molto

Second Movement: Largo

Third Movement: Scherzo, Molto vivace

Fourth Movement Pt. I Adagio; Allegro con Fuoco

Fourth Movement Pt. II Allegro con Fuoco

Music is the best form of diplomacy, don't you think?

Quiet Please: City Opera Opens

The New York City Opera opens its 2010-2011 season tonight with the New York premiere of Leonard Bernstein's opera A Quiet Place.
Leonard Bernstein composing at his Connecticut studio.
 Photo by George S. Zimbel © 1968

It's hard to believe that this three-act work has never been performed onstage in New York City. A Quiet Place tells the story of a typical American family at a crisis point after the death of their matriarch. The opera was originally conceived as a sequel to Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti, another opera dealing with the same family. In 1983, the two works were presented in sequence. But the newer opera bombed. Bernstein never wrote another work for the stage.

A Quiet Place was a collaboration between Bernstein and librettist Stephen Wadsworth, the acclaimed stage director who recently saved the Metropolitan Opera's production of Boris Godunov after its original director resigned. Here, the staging is done by Christopher Alden, whose stripped-down version of Don Giovanni was a highlight of the 2009 season.

Bernstein and Wadsworth set about revising the opera into three acts with two intermissions, moving the Tahiti music to the second act and making it a flashback, an "opera-within-an-opera." The revised, three-act version premiered at the Washington National Opera in 1984. The opera was recorded in Vienna, (with the composer conducting) but still failed to gain the popularity of West Side Story, On The Town or even Candide.

Hopefully, this City Opera production will earn Bernstein's final opera what it has always deserved, a (quiet) place in the repertory.

Opera Review: Workin' Them Anvils: Il Trovatore at the Met

The Met Chorus bangs the anvils in Act II of Trovatore.
Photo © 2010 Ken Howard/The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera revived its grim, war-torn (in other words, perfect) production of Il Trovatore on Tuesday night. The performance was anchored by four strong leads and strong conducting from Marco Armiliato. The stage design, a rotating unit set that depicts the devastated Spanish countryside during the Spanish Civil War, helped the singers project their voices out into the house.

Patricia Racette was feeling ill, and asked for a disposition before the performance. But as evidenced by her starry rendition of "Tacea la notte", the veteran Verdi soprano needed no such indulgence. Ms. Racette brings out the deepest emotions in Leonora, making her a complex, fascinating heroine caught in the opera's whirlpool of a plot. As Leonora died in the last act, Ms. Racette showed more singing and acting ability while lying on the stage than some sopranos have when standing up and healthy.

Marcelo Álvarez looked and sounded rejuvenated as he tackled the difficult role of Manrico. The Argentinean tenor has slimmed down, and his high register has bloomed in response. This was especially apparent during "Di quella pira," where he tossed off the high notes in a fearless manner and made this tricky aria look easy. He also sang with power and clarity in his character's opening ballade and the climactic "Miserere."

Zjelko Lujic has been a Verdi mainstay at the Met in recent years, delivering memorable performances in operas such as Macbeth and Rigoletto. Here, he added the role of the Count di Luna to that repertory. His interpretaton goes beyond the usual chest-thumping, mustache-twirling villain.

Mr. Lujic had the finest musical moment of the evening in Act III. This was "Il balen del suo sorriso", the two-part aria that gives the listener all the complexities of Di Luna's personality in just six minutes. It should also be mentioned that bass Alexander Tsymbalyuk made a strong house debut as the loyal retainer Ferrando.

The gypsy Azucena is the character at the heart of Trovatore. Marianne Cornetti made a case for her harrowing interpretation. She sang "Stride la vampa" with real terror in her voice .In the closing minutes of the opera, she went just far enough over the top, simultaneously celebrating and grieving the death of Manrico. As Mr. Lujic sunk to his knees in horror, the orchestra banged home the last chords on this successful revival.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Great Download Experiment

Some of the CD collection.
I'm a CD collector. I have a room in my Brooklyn apartment with four bookcases of music, all of it on compact disc. I started with Parsifal, which was a Christmas present from my Mom, the one that James Levine recorded at Bayreuth in 1985.

As a writer, reviewer and trader of music, I've probably kept Deutsche Grammophon, EMI, Decca, and the rest of the music industry in business over the years, even through the lean times when conductors got fired right and left and Titanic was considered "classical."

I have rarities.

 I have some out-of-print stuff.

I obsess over the DG and London 'Collectors Editions.'

I shop at Academy Records. And I know the catalogue pretty well. That's one of the reasons that my blog posts on here are always accompanied by that little box, so if you want to get something relevant to the music I'm writing about, all you have to do is click.

Those box links almost always go to CD hard copies. But in the interests of experimentation (and because I wanted to hear an out-of-print Karl Böhm recording of Capriccio, I downloaded a few operas in the last several days. I got the Amazon encoder on my Mac, and the tracks got transferred into ITunes. Once I edited and tweaked the track names to match my own particular IPod filing system, they were ready to join the "to go" music library in my 80 gig IPod.

Or were they?

Of the three operas sampled, two of them had audible clicks or silence at the end of several MP3 files. While this is almost unnoticeable in rock and roll or jazz, it makes a huge difference in the seamless world of opera. No actual notes were lost. But the pause or transition was less than smooth, jarring, and to an opera lover like me, very noticeable.

Secondly digital recordings (or modern digital remastering) is all about preserving the freshness and bloom of analogue. At least it has been since DG introduced 4D Audio and a 24-bit mastering process.

Both Capriccio and La Navarraise (downloaded to warm my ears up for last night's Opera Orchestra of New York concert) sounded compressed and somewhat pressurized, as if the full warmth of the digital sound had not translated onto MP3. I upload a lot of my CDs into my IPod (for home and subway listening) and I haven't had that problem, for the most part.

The damning evidence against "going download" came when I tried to put a 1991 Cavalleria Rusticana (the one with Domingo, Agnes Baltsa and Juan Pons) into my computer, and then into my IPod. (And yes, I know that's not the first choice Cav, but it's one I didn't own and I like Giuseppe Sinopoli.) It loaded quickly. Once I cleaned up the track names, composer name, name of the artist and conductor in an acceptable fashion (an important step if you want an IPod to play tracks in the correct order!) I sync'd my Pod.

All went well until I got to "Ah! Io vedi!" (track 15)  the six-minute duet between Santuzza and Turiddu that sets up the main action of the opera. And that's where the IPod stopped dead, and refused to sync the track. The most likely cause is some kind of weird file corruption.

I've had this problem with uploaded discs before. If you have a hard copy of that opera on CD, you can just re-rip the track and delete the bad copy. If you format everything correctly, it will play in order. However, without that physical copy (which I don't have) there's no way with Amazon downloading to re-download the MP3 from the Amazon server. Well there is, but it involves paying for the track twice. The download cost me $10. A second download of "Ah! Io vedi!" would be another 99 cents.

Looking at the prices on, I could get a new copy of that Cav for as low as four bucks. Plus shipping. But in our fast-food Internet culture, I did the modern thing.

I paid the $.99. I downloaded the track again. This time it worked.

But I still like CDs better.

Opera Review: Roberto Alagna Sparks OONY Return

Roberto Alagna, posing with his wax likeness at Madame Tussaud's.
The Opera Orchestra of New York is back, and it's about damn time.

The OONY made a welcome return to Carnegie Hall last night with a double-header of Cavalleria Rusticana and the little-known Massenet opera La Navarraise. The ensemble, which specializes in "opera in concert" (performed without scenery and sets) is a treasured New York institution. But financial problems forced the group to "go dark" following a 2008 performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's The Golden Cockerel. Monday night's concert marked the first OONY concerts since the aborted 2008 season, and the Carnegie Hall debut of tenor Roberto Alagna.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Fear and Loathing at the Opera

According to Wiki, there is no medical or technical term for fear of opera or opera singers. ("Pavarottiphobia?") But with Halloween coming up, let's look at some of the phobias you might encounter at the opera house. There are five on this list. Alphabetical order.
Violetta: a working girl on the clock.
Photo © Salzburg Festival

Altophobia: Not a fear of low-voiced female singers. Fear of heights is a real problem for some opera lovers, who avoid the upper reaches of the Family Circle at the Met and the Fourth Ring of the New York City Opera. However, those seats have the best acoustics, since the "top of the house" is where most singers sing to when they're onstage.

Chronomentrophobia: The fear of clocks. This could be a real problem for patrons attending the Met's new production of La Traviata, which opens on New Year's Eve. Willy Decker's set involves Violetta singing on the face of a giant clock.

Hemophobia: The fear of blood. Sufferers should avoid verismo tragedies at all costs, and steer clear of such bloody works as Lucia di Lammermoor, Tosca and Wozzeck.

Kainolophobia: Judging from the mixed reaction to the new Das Rheingold and the overwhelmingly negative reaction to Luc Bondy's Tosca in 2009, some of the Met audience suffers from a fear of new things. New productions this year include the arrival of Nixon in China, and new stagings of Don Carlo and Boris Godunov.

Technophobia: Afraid of technology? Then avoid the new production of Die Walküre opening at the Met in April. The high-tech production features a multi-million dollar computer-controlled device (nicknamed "The Machine") which turns itself into mountain passes, windswept rocks, and whatever else is necessary to stage Wagner's drama. Those afraid of flying, fire and German opera ("götterdämmerophobia") should also stay home.

And one more, because I can't resist:

Allodoxophobia: Fear of opinions. Luckily, opera lovers don't seem to have this one. Feel free to fight against it by leaving comments below!

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Concert Review: Mariinsky Splits Mahler Twin Bill

For any experienced international orchestra, the performance of a Mahler symphony is a difficult feat. These are long, complex works, which make great demands on soloists. They require tight ensemble playing and a firm hand from the conductor. Sunday's afternoon concert at Carnegie Hall, which featured the Mariinsky Orchestra playing Mahler's Symphony No. 4 followed by the Symphony No. 1 was an endurance test for the road-hardened Russian musicans.
Valery Gergiev: "OK, guys. Let's play two!"

The results were mixed.

Valery Gergiev's idiosyncratic approach to tempo was well-suited to the Fourth, Mahler's shortest symphony. (Since only two of its four movements meditate on death, it is also one of his more cheerful works!) The Mariinsky strings dominated the first movement, with its distinctly Viennese dance melody interrupted by bright winter sleigh-bells. The concertmaster picked up a second fiddle (tuned a step higher) to play the "Freund Hein" solo part in the second movement. The Adagio was all light textures, dreamily played until it rose to a mighty climax.

The orchestra was joined by soprano soloist Anastasia Kalagina for the finale. This setting of the Wunderhorn song Das himmlische Lieben offers a child's perspective on the afterlife. Ms. Kalagina (who also featured in Wednesday's performance of the Mahler Eighth), sang the innocent melodies with sweet, charming tone. Mr. Gergiev handled the orchestra's instrumental interjections in a brusque way. The returning sleigh-bells sounded like an alarm call, underlining the morbid subtext of the poem.

To perform the Mahler First, the Mariinsky horns were doubled to eight players. However, the four who had performed both works sounded tired and suffered from intonation problems. At their lowest register, they produced an unpleasant, watery tone. Mr. Gergiev set a fearsome pace for the opening movement, as if Mahler's presentation of the natural world bored him and he wanted to reach its climax as quickly as possible.

This rushed approach carried through the entire symphony. The Ländler sounded more like an Alpine aerobics class than an Austrian peasant dance. However, the strings produced lovely, transparent textures in the central trio.
The funeral march (with its famous use of the children's tune "Frere Jacques") was played loudly and taken at an unsafe speed. The interpolated "band" music (that interrupts the funeral procession) kept accelerating at random.

In the final movement, Mr. Gergiev steered his forces between quiet lulls and huge eructations of orchestral noise. The woodwinds evoked the bird-songs from the first movement. The horns whooped and hollered. The final, difficult horn solo was bungled by a player with tired lips. The clashing percussion took over as the players fought to be heard. The horns rose to their feet in order to play louder. Finally, the whole thing clattered to a stop, and the Mahler marathon was over.

Recording Recommendations: Il Trovatore

Hot couple: Franco Corelli and Leontyne Price
or, why 1962 was the Year of the Anvil.

"Il Trovatore is easy. All you need is the four greatest singers in the world."

Those words (or something like them) are attributed to Enrico Caruso, who made the role of Manrico his bread and butter in the early 20th century. Looking at the available recordings of this famously difficult Verdi opera, he was right.
In other words, there are some wretched recordings of Il Trovatore on the market.

Here's two good ones. Both of these recordings are currently in the catalogue. Both are available from Deutsche Grammophon. And both were recorded in 1962.

Chorus and Orchestra of La Scala cond. Tullio Serafin

Leonore: Antonietta Stella
Manrico: Carlo Bergonzi
Azucena: Fiorenza Cossotto
Comte di Luna: Ettore Bastinanini

As an opera lover, it took me a long time to settle on this particular Trovatore as my "go-to" recording. This one, recorded in Milan in 1962 isn't perfect, but it's likeable, energetic and well sung. Carlo Bergonzi simply hits it out of the park as Manrico. Fiorenza Cossotto is a haunting presence as Azucena, making the most of this complex character. Ettore Bastianini is a dastardly Count Luna with just a hint of humanity. The only hitch is Antonietta Stella, whose Leonora is acceptable, but not up to the standards of the other singers in the cast. Tullio Serafin conducts a skilled, measured performance.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Herbert von Karajan

Leonora: Leontyne Price
Manrico: Franco Corelli
Azucena: Giulietta Simionato
Comte di Luna: Ettore Bastinanini

This is a semi-legendary live performance from 1962, recorded at the Salzburg Festival. It preserves the great Leontyne Price as Leonora. She is perfectly partnered with Franco Corelli, the embodiment of the manly Italian tenor. Both her "Tacea la notte" and his "Di quella pira" embody their respective characters perfectly. Cossotto is a wonderful, haunting Azucena.

Bastinanini, (who would have a falling out with Karajan a few years later) is even better here than on the above-mentioned studio recording. The Vienna Philharmonic put their backs into a superb performance, and anyone who wants to hear Karajan when he was still a great opera conductor needs to give this a spin. An essential.

Note: This is a live performance taken from a radio broadcast. Also, this same performance has been issued before, on various labels of dubious origin. For this reissue in the Salzburg Festival Dokumente series, the DG engineers dug up the original master tape of the Austrian radio broadcast.  It is in mono sound.

Leontyne Price and Franco Corelli singing the "Miserere" from Act IV of Il Trovatore. 
Recorded at the Metropolitan Opera in 1961.

Saturday, October 23, 2010

Concert Review: Mahler Marathon Features Fine Friday Fifth

The Mariinsky Orchestra continued their week-long stand at Carnegie Hall with an uplifting performance of Mahler's Fifth Symphony.
Valery Gergiev, making a trademark mysterious hand gesture.
One of Mahler's most popular symphonies, the Fifth is best known for the opening funeral march, the gentle Adagietto (featured in the film Death in Venice) and the Scherzo, a central dance movement that is particularly taxing for the principal horn. It marked the start of Mahler's "middle period" and constitutes the first of an informal trio of instrumental symphonies.

Valery Gergiev set the opening Marcia Funebre at a slow, dragging tempo, as if the orchestra could not bring itself out of its grief in order to move forward. The opening four-note rhythm recalls another famous Fifth Symphony: Beethoven's. The trumpet calls, played by soloist Sergey Kryuchkov rang out in challenge. The cymbals crashed. And the low strings took hold of the deep second motif that recalls Beethoven again, this time the Eroica Symphony. 

The sonic world of the first movement collapses in the second, a terrifying cry from the heart that confronts the Mahlerian abyss. The orchestra played admirably here, tightly controlled by Mr. Gergiev and never letting the terrifying sounds of chaos spin completely out of control. The horns let out a mighty fanfare, signalling the bright dawn coming at the end of the work.

The Scherzo was an impressive exercise in horn-playing, with fine work from the principal soloist. The rich Mariinsky strings dominated the work's two trio sections, playing with bows at first and then pizzicato. This is bucolic music, which evokes Beethoven again--this time the rustic peasants of the Pastorale. Mr. Gergiev was in his element here, seeming to levitate into the air, drawing back across his body like an archer, and leading his players with those cryptic hand gestures that are impossible for the audience to decipher.

The Adagietto is one of Mahler's "greatest hits", made more so by reprehensible classical compliations that offer the aural equivalent of an ear massage. Here, it was elegantly played by harps and strings, setting the stage for  the exuberant finale.

In the massive final movement, Mr. Gergiev brought the powerful Mariinsky brass to the fore and let them run. The theme switched from section to section, pausing to flower into a giant fugue in the strings and then tossing itself around the orchestra like a beach ball.  This was exceptional music making, with orchestra and audience driven to the edge of excitement in the jubilant final chords.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Concert Review: Mystic Muddle Mars Mariinsky Mahler Eighth

Valery Gergiev was here.
Valery Gergiev is one of the bravest conductors working in serious music today. His gung-ho style works wonders with most symphonies, adding a fresh dose of energy to familar scores or making unfamiliar works suddenly pleasing to the ear. However, the maestro stumbled with Thursday night's performance of Mahler's Eighth Symphony at Carnegie Hall.

Dubbed the 'Symphony of a Thousand' because of the number of performers packed on the stage at its premiere, the Mahler Eighth is one of the composer's grandest visions and one of his most problematic. It was the first symphony to be sung all the way through. The texts are drawn from the Roman Catholic hymn 'Veni, creator spiritus' and the final scene of Part II of Goethe's Faust. They are not easy to understand or perform. The opening hymn serves as a first movement. The Faust setting divides into several smaller parts. However, it counts as one enormous movement, running nearly an hour in length.

To perform this two-part behemoth, Valery Gergiev brought the Mariinsky Orchestra, three seperate choral groups and eight solo singers from the Mariinsky Opera. But he neglected to bring a sense of command over this sprawling symphony. Mr. Gergiev's go-for-the-throat approach to music making works nine times out of ten. But last night, the rich details that make this symphony a unique, uplifting experience sounded blurred and out of focus.

The first movement was beset by faulty intonation by the Mariinsky horn players, with some ugly notes marring noble, inspiring calls. All eight singers were clumped on the side of the cramped Carnegie stage, wedged between the strings and the organ. The Russian soloists struggled to be heard, and had issues with the Latin and German texts. Backup tenor Avgot Amonov wrestled with his solo as Doctor Marianus. (He lost.) Better work was delivered by bass Evgeny Nikitin (the Pater Profundus) and leading soprano Anastasia Kalagina as the penitent Gretchen. But the second movement wandered until the final ten minutes, when the army of singers and musicians led a successful assault on the Chorus Mysticus.

The evening was plagued by balance issues, with the three choruses constantly drowning out the orchestra. Finally, the members of the Brooklyn Youth Chorus Academy are clearly too old for the part of a boys' chorus. They kept cupping their hands over their mouths while singing, perhaps in an effort to sound younger. One wished that Mephistopheles would slip in from Part I of Faust, and bequeath to them the gift of eternal youth. Barring that, he could at least bring a couple of boy trebles.

Upon to Us, a Blog Is Born

I'd just like to pause in our Marathon of Mariinsky Mahler Madness to shout out to my good friend and colleague, the ever-entertaining James Jorden. The writer of Parterre Box has taken on the controversial subject of stage direction in opera with his new blog, Rough and Regie over on the Musical America site. The first post is called "Beyond the Bathrobe."

I hope you all enjoy it. But not as much as you enjoy Superconductor. Or at least, not as much as I enjoy Superconductor. Well, maybe a little bit.

OK. Back to work!

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Concert Review: Mariinsky Resurrection Finds Redemption at Carnegie Hall

Valery Gergiev continued his week-long Mahler marathon at Carnegie Hall on Wednesday night with a stirring performance of the Resurrection Symphony.
Valery Gergiev rises to the occasion.

The concert marked the second of Mr. Gergiev's complete Mahler cycle in New York this season. When the schedule was announced, the symphonies looked to be in random order: 6, 2, 8, 5, 1, 4. However, hearing the Second only a few days after Sunday's performance of the Sixth, Mr. Gergiev's intentions are clear. In his version of the Mahler-verse, the tragic protagonist of the Sixth, felled by the hammer blow of fate, is resurrected and elevated to heaven in the Second.

The journey takes five movements. As he so often does, Mr. Gergiev chose power over precision, slamming the notes out in a rough-but-ready fashion, urging the orchestra forward with a shake of his shoulders or a cryptic gesture from his baton-less hands. This was exciting music-making, with a raw, unpolished quality that adds to the pathos of Mahler's work.

The Resurrection Symphony was originally conceived as Totenfeier ("Funeral Rite") a tone poem in one movement. It opens memorably, with a fragmentary theme growled by the basses. The brass come blaring in, pouring out their grief. But as with the Sunday performance of the Sixth, Mr. Gergiev seems more concerned with bringing out the rage in Mahler than the hair-tearing grief.

The remaining four movements were played in quick succession. The strings took the spotlight for the Ländler, an Austrian peasant dance that appears frequently in Mahler. The Scherzo depicted the horrors of life with weird rhythms and ominous bangs and clicks from the percussion section. Mezzo-soprano Olga Borodina stood up to sing Urlicht ("Primeval Light") a Wunderhorn song which here serves a similar function to the bass solo in Beethoven's Ninth. Here, sets the stage for the choral redemption to come.

Ms. Borodina sang with a cool approach entirely appropriate to a voice from above. The thunder returned as the brass and percussion hammered out the opening of the finale, again recalling Beethoven. The stage door opened for an offstage brass passage that depicted the last trumpet. Another Mahlerian march narrated the dead rising from their graves. Finally, soprano Anastasia Kalagina and the double chorus joined Ms. Borodina in the symphony's final pages. A flood of bright shining sound rushed from the stage. And like the dead themselves, the audience rose, transcended.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Concert Review: Grim Sixth Opens Mariinsky's Mahler Marathon

Valery Gergiev
Photo by Joachim Ladofaged
The Mariinsky Orchestra opened its week-long residency at Carnegie Hall with Sunday's performance of Gustav Mahler's bleak Sixth Symphony. Under Valery Gergiev's leadership, the Russian orchestra barreled through the work like an out-of-control freight train. When the crash finally came in the final movement, it was as intended, a product of Gustav Mahler's design and Mr. Gergiev's expert direction.

Mahler wrote the first movement as a pounding march for low strings, brass and drums, occasionally interrupted by outbursts of a second theme written for his wife, Alma. The march acquired new urgency under Mr. Gergiev's hands, hurtling along with occasional romantic outbursts of strings and wind. The themes argued, torn between a storm of constant motion and the romantic yearning that characterized the composer's relationship with his wife, Alma. Love wins out, and the death march got a temporary reprieve.

Mr. Gergiev placed the Adagio second, in accordance with Mahler's own decision before the work's 1806 premiere. This slow movement is the pause amidst the storm and stress. The lush Mariisnsky strings moved to the fore, bathing the listener in music that evoked the composer's complex relationship with Alma. Eventually, the brass led a tremendous crescendo. As the movement built to a mighty climax, the drive toward destiny resumed.

The Scherzo is one of Mahler's grotesque creations, as a capering, deformed version of the march theme clashed repeatedly with the Trio theme, an 18th century minuet that recalled Viennese serenades. Thumping timpani and bone-rattling percussion added to the dark celebration before seeming to collapse in a heap: the sound of a marionette with its strings cut.

The finale is Mahler's darkest hour. The theme is stated in the tuba, and then struggles to rise out of the orchestra and resume the trek toward destiny. The defining moment of the Sixth came halfway through the last movement. As the theme climaxed, the percussionist stood up at the back of the stage and raised a massive wooden hammer, striking a hollow wooden box. This sickening thump stopped the music dead, as the romantic themes seemed to panic and scatter. The melody resumed, but the hammer struck twice more, effectively knocking out the symphony. The music simply died in its tracks.

Mr. Gergiev will conduct the Mariinsky Orchestra in Mahler's Resurrection Symphony on Wed. Oct. 20, the Eighth (Symphony of a Thousand) on Thu. Oct. 21, the Fifth on Oct. 22, and the First and Fourth on Oct. 24. All concerts are at Carnegie Hall. Visit the official Carnegie Hall website for further details and tickets.

CD Review: A Glowing Parsifal from St. Petersburg

Valery Gergiev tackles Wagner's final opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Valery Gergiev finds the Grail in this new Parsifal.
Valery Gergiev and his Mariinsky Orchestra and Chorus sound postively radiant on the new recording of Parsifal, the first new studio recording of Wagner's final opera to be issued since the early '90s, and the first Wagner recording issued on the Mariinsky label.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Concert Review: Five Composers at the Frontier

George Manahan

The American Composers Orchestra welcomed George Manahan as its new music director with this concert, featuring five modern works, two world premieres and two compositions that were played for the first time in New York. Throughout, Mr. Manahan's skilful direction reminded the audience that new music and modern music is nothing for the listener to be afraid of. 

The Light Within by John Luther Adams  is built upon a series of shifting, glacial chords that move slowly and develop. The orchestra plays continuously, working out the musical ideas as tiny fragments of melody that coalesce into shimmering walls of ice. The crescendo chord is accompanied by a glow of blue and green lights, drawing the listener deep into Mr. Adams' conception, before drowning the listener in sound. Mr. Manahan's experience on the podium kept this seemingly implacable piece of music moving forward at an inexorable rate.

Neither Spell Nor Charm by Jacob Druckman is based on the lullaby from Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. The work is not lulling or soothing. Druckman's use of woodwinds and spiky melodies recalls early Stravinsky, and the repeated shifts in mood draw the listener into the sonic world of the piece.

Lonely Child by Claude Vivier featured soprano Susan Narucki singing the French text against a complex orchestral background that builds chords homophonically, rather like music of the early Renaissance. The work's second secton features a gorgeous, shimmering series of bitonal chords. Ms. Narucki produced stopped sounds, ululating, and a wordless narrative duplicating a child's speech patterns, interrupted by muffled thumps on a bass drum and the chime of tubular bells.

From The Other Sky by Wang Jie uses astrology, costumed singers and PowerPoint to create a multi-media experienced based on the Chinese Zodiac. Ms. Wang (who played the keyboard parts as well) tells the story of Lark (soprano Emily Hindrichs) and her effort to become the 13th member of the Zodiac Palace. The work uses voice, keyboards and the orchestra to build complex sound worlds for the celestial realm of the Gods and the earthly suffering of mankind. Ms. Wang's rich, fully developed music turned an abstract myth into a fulfilling experience. 

The evening ended with BluesKonzert by Alvin Singleton. This is a one-movement concerto. Not a straight blues, but more of an exercise in mode and minimalism which requires great piano technique.  Soloist Ursula Oppens made a welcome return to the American Composers Orchestra, displaying formidable technique as she coped with the staccato figures, glissando runs and trills written into the score.

Friday, October 15, 2010

CD Review: Amiable Mozart on the Natural Horn

The natural horn comes to the fore on this new reissue of a 1988 recording from the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra of Mozart's four horn concertos, plus two fragmentary rondos written for the combination of horn and small orchestra.

Lowell Greer. Photo © 2010 by John Edwin Mason
This is a pleasant set of recordings, dominated by the opportunity to hear soloist Lowell Greer and his formidible technique on the instrument.  Throughout, he is expertly accompanied by the Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra, who display a light touch for Mozart under the direction of Nicholas McGegan.

Mr. Greer's instrument, a reconstruction of a French-style horn originally built in Paris in 1818) may sound odd to modern listeners. The pitch sometimes wavers above the strings, and the highest range of the instrument is often a dicey proposition. But these self-imposed technological limitations do not prevent this from being a thoroughly enjoyable set of performances, and one that is of considerable interest to horn aficionadoes and Mozart lovers alike.

The horn is a tricky instrument. From the technologically complex orchestral horns used around the world, to the old-fashioned pumpflugleeln horns used by the Vienna Philharmonic to the "natural" horns with their system of small pipes ("crooks") that are placed and replaced in order to change keys as needed, the sweetest-voiced member of the brass family remains a challenge to keep in tune, let alone play well.

Like most of Mozart's concertos for wind instruments, the horn concertos were composed with a particular soloist in mind. In this case, it was Josef Ignatz Leutgelb, who played in the private court orchestra of the Archbishop of Salzburg before moving to Vienna, setting up a cheese shop and continuing to play music. Herr Mozart had a contentuous relationship with his hornist, scribbling "Silly Ass Leutgelb" across the top of the autograph score of one of the concertos. However, that did not stop the composer from writing beautiful melodies for the instrument.

Opera Review: Rigoletto Gets a Face-Lift

George Gagnidze as Rigoletto.
Photo © The Metropolitan Opera
This season, the Metropolitan Opera's 20-year-old production (originally created for Luciano Pavarotti) got new sets for the Duke's palace. OK. They weren't new. In fact, they look like they were recycled from another opera at the last minute. But more importantly, some new vocal talent took the stage alongside George Gagnidze's reliable Rigoletto.

Francesco Meli made the Duke the unequivocal star of the show. Although his blooming column of a voice narrowed perceptibly at the top, Mr. Meli has a pleasing tenor and the sexual charisma needed to make the Duke a compelling figure. Although his "Questa o quella" was marred by that narrowing of his voice, it was the Act II monologue, "Ella mi fu rapita!" that floored the audience and brought down the house. Just for a second, you were on the Duke's side. And that is the secret of a great Rigoletto, making the audience itself culpable in the tragedy that follows.

Mr. Gagnidze made a menacing Rigoletto, a thuggish accomplice to the Duke's adventures. "Para siamo" was chilling, free of the over-used device of stage whispers. In his scenes with Gilda, the hulking jester turned into the warm, caring parent, though still slightly menacing to his daughter. When he sang "Cortigiani, vil razza dannata", he spat it at the audience, effectively accusing us of being somehow 'in' on the kidnapping of his daughter. His final series of transformatons: from avenging wouldbe assassin to grief-stricken wreck were accomplished with astonishing fluidity.

Christine Schäfer is a fine vocal actress, and last year she made a strong impression as Sophie in the revival of Der Rosenkavalier. However, she lacks the ideal sweet tone and fearless agility above the stave that makes the aria "Caro nome" a show-stopper. She sounded tentative reaching up for the highest notes. However, her slight physique and acting skills led to a strong sense of the father-daughter bond between herself and Rigoletto, and her death scene was movingly sung.

Finally, mention must be made of the fine Italian bass Allesandro Silvestrelli as Sparafucile. Not only did he make the most of his Act I duet with Rigoletto, holding the final low note in truly impressive fashion, but this rich, dark bass came into his own in the third act. The trio "Ah, pìu non ragiono," combined Mr. Silvistrelli and Ms. Schäfer with mezzo Nino Surguladze (as Maddalena) to create a tempest of sound equivalent to the storm generated by the Met Orchestra under the baton of Paolo Arrivabeni.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

In honor of the 33 Chilean Miners

They are all on the surface. They are all pulled to safety. Cue the music.

Freude, schöner Götterfunken,
Tochter aus Elysium,
Wir betreten feuertrunken,
Himmlische, dein Heiligtum!
Deine Zauber binden wieder
Was die Mode streng geteilt;
Alle Menschen werden Brüder,
Wo dein sanfter Flügel weilt.

Welcome back to the surface, gentlemen. We're glad you're safe.

Concert Review: Bang a Gong: The Philharmonic Plays Kraft

Walking into Avery Fisher Hall on Tuesday night, one realized that this was no ordinary concert.
Members of the New York Philharmonic, with Magnus Lindberg
(second from left) search a Staten Island junkyard for percussion
instruments for Kraft. Photo © 2010 by Chris Lee.
Maybe it was the small percussion stations and music stands scattered in the corners of the concert hall. Or possibly, it was the enormous bronze Paiste gong suspended from a cable in the exact center of the room, as if Chuck Barris had been brought in as a guest conductor.

The extra stations were installed to facilitate the first New York performances of Kraft, the 1985 composition that cemented the reputation of Philarmonic composer in residence Magnus Lindberg. Kraft is essentially a two-movement concerto, which incorporates huge tone clusters (at one point, a chord is formed from 72 seperate tones), spatial music, offstage brass, and found objects, including three suspended, sawn-off oxygen tanks, a set of bamboo wind chimes, and a large (and thankfully empty) nitrogen storage cylinder set next to the hanging gong.

The opening thunder of Kraft overwhelms the ear. But as the opening chords dwindle, the textures and rich ideas of Mr. Lindberg's music unveil themselves. Weird shrieks on the 'cello (produced by playing very close to the bridge), eerie piano noises, random cross-rhythms, and hisses and chitters from the conductor himself. the rat-a-tat-tat of metal sticks beating the nitrogen tank, and the sonorous effect of the multiple gongs. This passage recalled the Montsalvat bells from Wagner's Parsifal to beautiful effect.

The first half of the concert was more sedate, with works by Debussy and Sibelius, chosen to open the listener's ears to the experimentation of Kraft. The evening opened with a radiant, translucent performance of Prelude a les apre-midi d'un Faune, with Mr. Gilbert taking pains to explain the connection between Debussy's use of short, rising and falling motifs and the musical ideas of Mr. Lindberg.

The orchestra was then joined by Joshua Bell for Sibelius' ever-popular violin concerto. This is an unusual work in that it relies on the soloist to drive the momentum forward, developing its thematic ideas from the difficult cadenzas that dominate the first movement. Each movement featured spectacular playing and a singing tone from Mr. Bell's instrument. Again, Mr. Gilbert drew beautiful textures in the second movement, showing the influence of Debussy. The rapport between conductor and soloist was evident as they almost seemed to duel onstage, making the high-speed finale a thrilling experience.

Watch the Philharmonic percussion section discover their instruments for Kraft.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Opera Review: Met's Cinematic Boris Provides Thrills and Kills

Rene Pape as Boris Godunov. Photo © The Metropolitan Opera
The Metropolitan Opera has crafted a formidable new production of Boris Godunov. And they did it on a tight five-week schedule, due to the untimely resignation of director Peter Stein in mid-August. Working with Russian maestro Valery Gergiev, the new director, Stephen Wadsworth has given New York a production which captures the intimacy of Boris' internal drama and the cinematic sweep of the frozen, starving people of Russia, clutching at political straws in a desperate effort to survive.

The title character is the Tsar of Russia who (for dramatic purposes) murdered the heir to the throne and ruled the country for seven years. The role is one of the pinnacles of the bass repertory, a portrait of doubt, regret, and madness that can leave the audience breathless. Mr. Pape had those qualities in last night's performance, taking the audience to the very edge of sanity and over with a compelling performance.

The German bass has the dramatic and vocal resources to actually sing the role in a way that it had not been heard in New York for many years. His performance in the Clock Scene was terrifying. However, he drew the audience's compassion in the fourth act when Boris goes mad and dies, surrounded by his children and drowning in his own guilt.

This production features fine performances from the opera's supporting basses: Mikhail Petrenko as Pimen and Vladimir Ognovenko as Varlaam. The latter has some of the best music in the opera to sing, including the Song of Kazan and his confrontation with Grigory (Aleksandrs Antonenko) now calling himself Dmitri and pretending to be the (supposedly) murdered tsarevitch. Mr. Antonenko's Pretender was the one disappointment: he has a harsh, sharp tenor voice and was wobbly in his big Act III duet with the Princess Marina.

From the opening bars, the Metropolitan Opera chorus dominated the action, portraying the frozen, starving, suffering people of Russia in the Time of Troubles. Faced with callous acts of police brutality and pushed back and beaten down, the chorus dominates the opera. They also sang wonderfully, with crisp, precise diction and shattering power. Stage-hands hid within the chorus, moving scenery and furniture around the broad, cobble-stoned stage. This allowed for quick scene changed with the curtain up, giving the effect of a cinematic jump-cut without dropping the curtain between scenes.

Written for the 1875 revision, the "Polish" Act of Boris stops the plot dead, but brings a female lead to the grim political proceedings. In the hands of fiery mezzo-soprano Ekaterina Semenchuk, the Princess Marina is the coldest character in this opera's frozen world. Ms. Semenchuk portrayed the princess as a brazen dominatrix, brow-beating Dmitri and lashing out at her white-clad servants. She was aptly paired with bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin as Rangoni, the Jesuit priest who is scheming to use Marina and the Pretender to convert Russia to Catholocism. Ms. Vishnekaya and Mr. Nikitin turned up the heat in their scenes together, making the confrontation between their characters into a twisted love duet.

Following the death of Boris, Mr. Wadsworth used the Kromy Forest scene to display Russia in a state of suffering and chaos. The stage became a killing ground, with choristers wielding knives and ropes, killing police officers, nobles, Jesuits, and each other in an orgy of rage and violence. The rabble was quelled by the apperance of Marina and her advisor Rangoni on horseback, with the Pretender, "Dmitri" being significantly forced to walk. Finally, the Holy Fool (played by character tenor Andrey Popov) commented on the action with a sad little song. This act is often an afterthought. Here, it provided astute political commentary and a chilling way to end this grandest of Russian operas.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Dressing For The Opera!

An opera enthusiast on his way to Aida.
Image © 20th Century Fox/G
So I'm at Das Rheingold the other night, and I see several audience members dressed in Viking helmets. The plastic ones you see at Minnesota football games. Even the Met Opera Shop is getting into the act, selling wool winter hats with Valkyrie pigtails and their own set of wool horns. No, that's not a product endorsement, I just think it's kind of cool. So I thought I'd look and see what other items could be worn to celebrate various operas.

Suitable for Aida, Die Zauberflöte or, should it ever be revived, Samuel Barber's Anthony and Cleopatra.

Guaranteed against political assasination. Recommended for Un Ballo in Maschera and I Vespri Siciliani.

Russian Fur Hat
Perfect for Boris Godunov, Khovanschina, and Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District

Ideal for Lucia di Lammermoor and Macbeth

What else? Rigoletto. Maybe Pagliacci. Take the bells off it first. Steelers logo optional.

Joan Sutherland: International Diva, Dies at 83

Joan Sutherland
La Stupenda has left us.

Dame Joan Sutherland, OM, AC, DBE died in Switzerland on Monday morning. She was 83.

Dame Joan was known for a stunning vocal technique that ranged easily from a low G to the starry reaches above high C, peaking at an altissimo F sharp. Her repertory included the three Donizetti "Queens" (Mary Stuart, Elizabeth I and Anna Bolena), the Druid priestess Norma and the scheming queen Semiramide. But her most famous role was the title character in Donizetti's most famous tragic opera, Lucia di Lammermoor.

Like the bride of Lammermoor, Ms. Sutherland was of Scottish ancestry. She grew up in Sydney, and started studying voice seriously at the age of 18. She made her concert debut in 1947, and first appeared onstage in 1950. She established a reputation at the Royal Opera House of Covent Garden, making Lucia her signature role. The famous nickname "La Stupenda" was bestowed by an appreciative Italian audience after an appearance at La Fenice in 1960.

Along with her contemporary and rival Maria Callas, Ms. Sutherland was instrumental in bringing the bel canto repertory back to the eas of the public. The blossoming of her career coincided with the rise of the recording industry, and she recorded much of the repertory of Bellini, Donizetti and Verdi.

Decca Records frequently paired her with her longtime husband, conductor Richard Bonynge. The couple's many recordings also featured a young tenor Luciano Pavarotti. Dame Joan recorded difficult roles such as Esclarmonde and Turandot, although she never sang the latter part onstage. Finally, she was the Forest Bird on the Vienna/Georg Solti recording of Siegfried, a small but crucial part of the first complete commercial recording of Wagner's Ring.

Although she suffered a vocal decline in the 1970s and '80s, Dame Joan Sutherland continued to make records, appear live, and give concerts. She san her last onstage role in 1990 at the Sydney Opera House, appearing as Queen Marguerite in Meyerbeer's epic Les Huguenots. Her farewell appearance was at Covent Garden, at a gala performance of Strauss' Die Fledermaus with her colleagues: Mr. Pavarotti and mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne.

Ms. Sutherland had been in ill health after a fall earlier this year. Her family has planned to have a small, private funeral. 

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Ten Reasons for Happiness in Music

Tanglewood. That'sthe Koussevitzky Shed hiding behind a tree.

A list post (not a Liszt post) this morning with some musings about music and maybe trying to grapple with why I do this crazy job and write this crazy blog. No order, this is stream-of-consciousness time.

1) Strauss' vocal writing, particularly in Ariadne auf Naxos.

2) The entry of the second cello in the Schubert C Major Quintet.

3) The perfect grass of Tanglewood under bare feet.

4) Being able to go through the stage entrance of Carnegie Hall. 

5) The Transformation Music in Act I of Parsifal
6) Having a seat at the Met with a touch of extra leg-room. (It does happen once in a while.)

7) Alan Gilbert and the sense of purpose that he has brought to the New York Philharmonic.

8) Those recordings that make you forget you are listening to a CD, an LP or an MP3.

9) The first disc by Apocalyptica. If you like cello playing, you should listen to these Finns play Metallica. No, really.

10) Most importantly, the fact that music matters to people, and that some of them read this. And that you read this. Thank you!

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