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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.

Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Last Stand (?) of the City Opera Orchestra

With City Opera Mum on Season, Ensemble Protests.

Protests by members of the New York City Opera orchestra continued today, with a protest and impromptu concert by members of the opera company's orchestra on the shiny new steps of Lincoln Center Plaza.
The City Opera's latest union negotiating tool.
This is the latest development in a long saga that started in April when the City Opera announced that they would be leaving 20 Lincoln Center for the 2011-2012 season. The company has been resident in that hall since the opening of Lincoln Center in 1966.

The musicians, led by a five-piece brass band playing excerpts from great operas, are protesting the company's decision to vacate their longstanding home at the former New York State Theater, and perform a severely truncated "wildcat" season of just five (unnanounced) operas at various (unnanounced) locations around New York City.

Watch the City Opera Orchestra play the prelude to Carmen.

This non-schedule of non-repertory in non-theaters has proved a challenge for this once-solvent company. City Opera is currently in the middle of a "Chairman's Challenge" fund-raising drive so they can actually have a season next year. Of course, with nothing to sell, it may be tough for the company's doughty phone bank workers to raise money of any kind, especially in a tough economy mired in the midst of a recession.
And the musicians' equivalent.
At a recent meeting with management, the musician's union and the union that represents singers and choristers who perform at City Opera staged a vote of "no confidence" in the leadership of City Opera GM George Steel. Despite the company's bankrupt state, Mr. Steel pulls down an annual salary of over $400,000.

Mr. Steel's two year administration has been rocked by controversial programming decisions. Despite some fiscal and critical success two years ago, the 2010-2011 season was a recipe for disaster. Obscure operas by Richard Strauss and Leonard Bernstein vied for space with experimental monodramas and a new work by Broadway composer Stephen Schwartz. This last, Seánce on a Wet Afternoon tanked with critics and failed to attract popular interest, possibly due to a murky, confusing marketing campaign that alienated opera lovers without drawing a new audience.

In other news, City Opera board member and acclaimed mezzo-soprano Joyce Castle has announced her decision to resign from the City Opera board. You can read her letter (dated June 23) here.

City Opera: With Real Elephants?

An Artistic Intitiative at the Barclay Center Prompts Blogger Speculation
Wouldn't you want to see an opera here? With free popcorn?
Image © 2011 Jersey Nets Basketball
A little over a month ago, Superconductor ran an article about the New York City Opera and its possible choices for a new home. Among the serious possibilities (City Center, BAM) were a number of tongue-in-cheek suggestions including the Barclay Center.

Now let me make this clear:


The Barclay seemed as likely a candidate for City Opera relocation as Crif Dogs in the East Village or (my personal favorite) the Owl's Head Water Reclamation Plant. But that twisted vision of the future may come to pass.

Built at the corner of Atlantic Avenue, the Flatbush Avenue Extension and Fourth Avenue, the Barclay Center is the new basketball arena currently under construction as part of the multijillion-dollar Atlantic Yards development. It is scheduled to open as home of the transplanted (and soon to be renamed) New Jersey Nets next year. But according to an article in the New York Times this sarcastic scenario is a possibility, albeit a dim one.

The Times ran a story chronicling the recent deal between the Barclay Center and the neighboring Brooklyn Academy of Music, to use the white elephant arena as a large scale stage for performing arts events of an undisclosed nature. The performances would begin in the Spring of 2013, but no specific reference was made to any artists or possible choice of repertory.
Hey Bob! I think there might be a job for us at City Opera!
Photo © 2006 African Wildlife Foundation
One cannot help but speculate if that includes large-scale performances by New York City Opera, assuming that the beleagured (and currently indigent) opera company can cobble together enough donations to put on any kind of season in 2013. Of course, turning a shiny new b-ball arena into a Brooklynite Baths of Caracalla for giant productions of Aida and Turandot is a cool idea, but it seems like this would be more the Metropolitan Opera's bag.

In other City Opera news, the company's recent preview performance of Rufus Wainwright's opera-to-be Prima Donna was met with a swarm of company protestors outside the Winter Garden in the World Financial Center. The merry musicians played excerpts from La bohème and Carmen, popular, beloved operas that the company used to mount before general manager George Steel took over and moved the city's second-biggest opera company out of its Lincoln Center digs.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

From the Ashes of 9/11

New York Philharmonic to Present Free Resurrection Symphony.
Alan Gilbert will conduct Mahler's Second Symphony on Sept. 10, 2011.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic.
This week, the New York Philharmonic has announced A Concert for New York, a free performance at Avery Fisher Hall to commemorate the victims of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. The location: Avery Fisher Hall. The program: Mahler's Symphony No. 2, also known as the Resurrection Symphony.

The Second is written on an enormous scale, and performances can last over 90 minutes. Mahler's sweeping vision of the afterlife calls for titanic forces, offstage trumpets, soprano and mezzo-soprano soloists, and a choir. The first movement originated as a tone poem called Totenfeier. It is a massive, ominous funeral march. Of the five movements, the first three are instrumental.

Gustav Mahler in 1909, when he 
led the New York Philharmonic.
The fourth movement is a setting of "Urlicht", a song from the collection Des Knaben Wunderhorn, which provided source material for Mahler in his first four symphonies. The finale starts with Friedrich Klopstock's poem The Resurrection and then dives into Mahler's own text. The last movement depicts the last trumpet, the Day of Judgment, and the dead (literally) rising from their graves.

First performed in 1895, the Resurrection was written as a tribute to the conductor Hans von Bülow. It was first performed in New York in 1908 durig Mahler's tenure as music director of the New York Philharmonic. The composer himself conducted.

Ever since that historic concert, the work has enjoyed a long association with with great Philharmonic conductors, including Dmitri Mitropoulos and Leonard Bernstein. This performance will be conducted by Alan Gilbert, the first Resurrection in his tenure as the orchestra's music director.

Tickets for A Concert for New York will be available to the general public this summer. Additionally, the performance will be broadcast on a large screen in Josie Robertson Plaza. Finally, PBS will televise the concert on Great Performances on Sept. 11 as part of the comemmoration of the tenth anniversary of the terrorist attacks.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Big Music. Small Package

Chandos Offers Stick Drives, Not Boxed Sets.

8 gigs of listening pleasure: the Chandos stick drive.
A look at the current catalogue offerings by Chandos Records shows the London-based record label moving ahead of its competitors with an innovative offering: pre-loaded music on thumb drives.

The decision to start reissuing box sets in stick form is another death knell for the CD manufacturing industry, Record companies have a long history of packaging music in jewel cases, toy trays, doorstop boxes and many other configurations, many of which can now be found floating in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

In the last decade, more ecologically-minded music lovers have been sharing their songs, opera scenes, and symphonic movements on flash drives, IPods and stick drives. It's about time that one record label finally wised up.

Billed as "the new way to listen to music," the Chandos Plug & Play Collection offers customers the option to purchase large collections of classical music and opera in the form of pre-loaded 8-gigabyte USB drive. The user gets the added "bonus" of keeping the (reusable) drive.

The Goodall Ring, in its current CD incarnation.
Large gold ring image not included.
The music can be bought as either loss-less FLAC or WMA files. MP3s, the most popular form of audio file for their portability, are also included on every drive sold, so essentially you get two copies of each work. The drives hold up to 16 discs of music, and users have the option to download album art and liner notes directly from the label.

Founded in 1979 by Brian Couzins, Chandos has a long history of offering cutting-edge recordings, strong performances, and unusual versions of standard and non-standard classical repertory. In 2005, the Chandos label was the first classical music label to open an MP3 store. The company launched the Plug & Play initiative on February 22.

For the last twenty years, Chandos has worked with the Peter Moores Foundation to produce opera recordings in English. These range from the works of Wagner and Strauss to the comedies of Mozart and Rossini. More esoteric offerings include English-language performances of operas like The Makropoulos Case by Janáček, raising their profile to listeners intimidated by the prospect of learning Czech.

The flagship of this line of Opera in English is the English National Opera's 1970s recording of Wagner's The Ring of the Nibelung, conducted by Sir Reginald Goodall. This live recording features a stellar cast including tenor Alberto Remedios, soprano Rita Hunter and bass-baritone Norman Bailey. The "Goodall Ring" is widely praised for its slow, gravid tempos and the conductor's remarkable attention to detail in the more arcane corners of Wagner's massive score.

The "stick" version of The Ring sells for £99.99, or $161.19 U.S. at the current rate of exchange. Considering that Amazon currently sells the physical CDS of the complete Goodall Ring for $167.01, the price is comparable.

Other offerings in the initial slate of releases include:

Orchestral Works of Malcom Arnold.
2 volumes of Contemporaries of Mozart.
2 volumes of Film Music
Elgar Oratorios.
Vaughan Williams symphonies.
Hummel piano and orchestral works.
2 volumes of the Walton Edition.

For more information visit the official Chandos site.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Opera Review: Fox on the Runway

The Cunning Little Vixen at the New York Philharmonic
Isabel Bayrakdarian makes her escape in
The Cunning Little Vixen. Photo by Chris Lee.
© 2011The New York Philharmonic

This week, the New York Philharmonic ended their marathon 2011 season with Leoš Janáček's The Cunning Little Vixen, an opera that pits mankind against the animal kingdom as represented within a Czech forest. Thursday night's performance, under the baton of music director Alan Gilbert, offered a sumptuous reading of the score, with the orchestra supporting a first-class cast.

That cast was led by soprano Isabel Bayrakdarian, making her Philharmonic debut in the title role of the vixen Sharp-Ears. Ms. Bayrakdarian displayed an agile soprano instrument with a pleasing tone and the right amounts of light and shade. She also manipulated the complex costume (including a nearly prehinsile fox-tail) easily, coping with the challenging choreography on the somewhat limited stage.

She was well matched by the veteran British baritone Alan Opie as The Forester, the game warden who serves as antagonist, captor and foil to the Vixen. Mr. Opie was joined by Joshua Bloom in the brief role of Harasta, character tenor Keith Jameson as the Schoolmaster and bass Wilbur Pauley in the mirroring roles of the Badger and the Parson. The animal cast also features mezzo Marie Lenormand as Sharp-Ears' vulpine love interest, and members of the Metropolitan Opera Children's Chorus as a menagerie of bugs, butterflies, and beetles.
They gave good sunflower: Alan Gilbert conducts The Cunning Little Vixen.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2011 The New York Philharmonic

The costumes, also designed by Mr. Fitch, combined animal and insect characteristics with everyday items: cargo pants for the Vixen and her mate. Latex skull-caps with scarlet punk-rock mohawks for the Rooster and Chickens. Backpacks for all the insects (presumably to hold their folded wings) and appropriate peasant gear for the Forester, the poacher Harasta, and the denizens of the little tavern that represents the world of man in this opera.

The Vixen is the second collaboration between Mr. Gilbert and director Doug Fitch, who paired on last year's successful staging of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. The team took a lighter approach with the Janacek piece. Mr. Fitch's design turned the vast stage of Avery Fisher Hall into a giant patch of sunflowers, with cleverly placed cloth scrims and Vari-Lites providing a suitable forest atmosphere. The aisles of the concert hall and a black, tongue-like extension expanded the acting surface into the house, giving the large cast of insects, animals and humans enough room to cavort.

The effect of dappled light and raw natural beauty were also present in Mr. Gilbert's sensitive reading of this brief, but treacherous score. Whether playing the folk melodies generated by the Cricket and the Butterfly, or accompanying the soaring voices of the Vixen and the Fox in their love duet, Mr. Gilbert spent most of the night conducting in a comfortable pocket.

He was bold with the score, speeding tempos when necessary, producing a marvelous kinetic energy in the Act II wedding. The final scene featured impressive playing from the Philharmonic horns, depicting offstage hunting parties with authority and noble, firm tone.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

A Ray of Light on Broad Street

Donations, Truncations Ensure Survival for Philadelphia Orchestra

A new day is dawning for the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Photo of the Kimmel Center from its Tumblr page.
Things are looking up for the Philadelphia Orchestra. The organization announced yesterday that they have been successful raising funds for next season, and may be on the road out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

According to a report in The New York Times, the orchestra has raised $27.5 million in pledges and support for next season, as well as wooing some new major corporate donors. $16.3 million of the money was raised in the form of "challenge grants", which must be met by the end of the year. The orchestra's goal is to plump the endowment by $100 million in the next 5 years, and raise $60 million for artistic purposes.

The Philadelphia Orchestra board rocked the music industry in April when it announced that the venerable organization had elected to file Chapter 11 in the face of mounting debt. Philadelphia is one of the "Big Five" orchestras, an elite quintet considered the best orchestras in this country. (The others are the New York Philharmonic, the Cleveland Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra.)

The crisis in Philadelphia was caused by a number of factors. In 2001, the orchestra moved from the small Academy of Music to the larger, more expensive Verizon Hall, (part of the Kimmell Center) down the street. Add in the economic collapse of 2008, which caused a drop in subscriptions and donations, the twin elixirs that keep an orchestra afloat. Finally, the collapse of the classical recording industry stripped the orchestra of a valuable revenue stream.

The Orchestra has also faced a crisis of leadership. The last music director, Christoph Eschenbach left on a bad note. The orchestra has been in the custody of chief conductor Charles Dutoit for the last few years. A new music director, the energetic French-Canadian Yannick Nézet-Séguin, is tabbed to take over the ensemble starting in 2012.

Mr. Nézet-Séguin will inherit a somewhat different organization. The 2011-2012 concert schedule has been slashed by 15%, with the cuts affecting the number of performances in a week. International touring has been cancelled for the foreseaable future. However, the orchestra will maintain its successful summer series at SPAC, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center.

Changes to the company's traditional programming and schedule will include concerts featuring film music, complete operas in a concert setting, and occasional forays back to the cozy, nostalgic confines of the Academy. The Philadelphia board also announced a renewed interest in pops programming, even as the orchestra struggles to renegotiate its contract with faded '60s pop star Peter Nero.

The Movable Feast: New York City Opera

Beleagured opera company GM meets with union, hints at 2012 schedule.
Better days: City Opera general manager George Steel, 
at the company's former Lincoln Center home.
Photo by René Perez
New York City Opera general manager George "The Man of" Steel met Kryptonite on Wednesday, in the form of angry unions who facing severe cutbacks at the now-homeless opera company.

An article by Daniel J. Wakin in Wednesday's New York Times discloses details from today's meeting between the New York City Opera and the members of Local 802 (representing the orchestra) AGMA, (the American Guild of Musical Artists) that represents singers and choristers.

City Opera has been in a state of flux since late April, when the company announced its intention to vacate its longtime home at the former New York State Theater. According to a report on Parterre Box, the  two unions, speaking as a unified front, offered a vote of "no confidence" in Mr. Steel's administration. Local 802 had previously voted unanimously against the company's decision to leave its Lincoln Center home.

The Parterre report also stated that members of both unions are worried that the company's untimely exit strategy is nothing more than a move to break both unions, whose contracts with the opera company expired this spring.

 The financially strapped opera company has decided to present a movable feast of operas at various venues around New York, and a few scattered concerts. However, today's meeting confirmed that upcoming City Opera performances will not be held in The Bronx, Staten Island, or Queens.

There was no mention of the New Jersey town of North Bergen, sometimes referred to as the "sixth borough."

The meeting revealed a few nuggets about the company's hush-hush 2011-2012 schedule. Here's our best guess as to what's coming....

October 2011: A "bel canto opera in concert, with four to six soloists and no chorus."
OK. That means it's either Rossini, Bellini or Donizetti. It can't be Barber, Cenerentola, Lucia, Elisir, Don Pasquale, Norma or I Puritani.
My guess: Rossini's La Scala di Seta, ("The Silken Ladder.") They'll probably market it as "The real La Scala" or some such idiocy.

February 2012: A piece of "standard repertory" from the 19th century, with a 57-piece orchestra and a chorus of 27.
My guess: it could be anything! Beethoven's Fidelio! Verdi? Maybe Luisa Miller? Maybe Macbeth: the Met's doing next April and Mr. Steel might try to go toe-to-toe with Peter Gelb. Let's get really ambitious. Die Freischütz! Die Fliegende Holländer! Me, I'd love to see them do rare Verdi like I Lombardi, I Masnadieri or Aroldo but they probably won't do anything that interesting.

Also for February: "A 21st century opera with a similar orchestra and no chorus."
This is Rufus Wainwright's French-language opera Prima Donna, which the City Opera swiped from the Met in the last intelligent action before the company's descent into irrelevance, homelessness, and obscurity. Let's hope it doesn't, y'know...stink.

March 2012: "A work of 18th century standard repertory (Mozart?)" Four performances.
This is the rumored new production of Così fan tutte, an opera the Met revived last year.

Our best guess: in a cross-platform marketing coup, the opera will be performed at various Così® restaurants around Manhattan. This will allow easy access to refreshments, comfortable seating, and free WiFi, permitting live-blogging of the performance by critics.

May 2012: A baroque opera. Probably Handel.
Y'know, this is actually a good idea. Starting with a 1997 staging of Handel's Xerxes (with Lorraine Hunt and David Daniels) the City Opera did a lot to popularize and stimulate interest in baroque operas in New York. Handel wrote 42 operas, defining the genre in England of the 18th century. Performing a straight Handel opera is a much better idea than the Met's plan to mount a pastiche this year (The Enchanted Island). I for one am looking forward to this.

Summer 2012: A "repertory staple" from the 19th century.
In another corporate tie-in, this opera (we have no idea what composer, or even if it will be in German, French or English) could be performed at the Staples at the corner of W. 35th St. and Eighth Avenue. The orchestra could be in the pen department upstairs, and the audience on folding chairs down by the copy machines. But that's far in the future.

In a statement following the meeting, Alan S. Gordon, the director of the  AGMA" said:
"The way you want City Opera to function would destroy the lives of a hundred performers. In that form, City Opera doesn’t deserve to exist, and if you can’t run City Opera as the people’s opera, then someone who can should take over."

I couldn't agree more.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A Sunflower Grows in Brooklyn

More about The Cunning Little Vixen.
Stage Model for The Cunning Little Vixen by Doug Fitch
Image © 2011 Giants Are Small. Courtesy New York Philharmonic.
Tonight is the opening of The Cunning Little Vixen at the New York Philharmonic. Your reporter was at yesterday's Open Rehearsal. Alan Gilbert led the musicians, perfecting small bits of Acts I and II of the opera. He worked with Alan Opie (The Forester) perfecting the scene where the Vixen gets captured. If the two acts played at the rehearsal are any indication, the actual performances should be marvelous. (My tickets are for Thursday night.)

The rehearsal was also an opportunity to experience Doug Fitch's extraordinary set, which transforms the Lincoln Center concert hall into a wonderous metaphorest, dominated by 33 ginormous sunflowers, constructed (according to recent New York Times article, from cardboard, plastic, and (of all things) bright yellow "CAUTION" tape.

According to the article (written by Steve Smith), director Doug Fitch's workshop is somewhere in my own neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn. The thought of giant sunflowers growing on my home turf reminds me of Star Trek, specifically This Side of Paradise.. That's the one with the flowers and the soporofic spores that make the whole Enterprise crew resign their commissions and go gamboling across the countryside.
The spores from Star Trek. Don't get too close. Image © Paramount/Desilu.
There will be a full review of Vixen on the blog in the next couple of days. Meanwhile, please enjoy this New York Philharmonic time-lapse video, chronicling the construction of the set.

Tickets for The Cunning Little Vixen are available at

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Johannistag! Johannistag!

A Guide to Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.
Sachs and Eva, in a scene from Act II of Die Meistersinger.

Today is the solstice. In Germany, that's the signal to celebrate St. John's Day. Johnannistag. So it's time to write about...Meistersinger!

This is Wagner's lone comic effort, and his longest opera. The music, played without intermissions lasts about four and a half hours. With the necessary breaks for singers and orchestra, the piece usually lasts about six hours. The music is mostly diatonic, projecting major-key freude with only occasional forays into chromatic angst.

The story is Wagner's own. The central character is the cobbler/poet Hans Sachs, but the plot revolves around Walther von Stolzing, a German nobleman (junker) and his efforts to win the hand of Eva Pogner, daughter of the town goldsmith of Nuremberg. The right to marry her is the prize in a song-contest being held on St. John's Day. The catch--that contestants must be an accepted, accredited member of the town guild of Mastersingers.

After a crash course from David, (Sachs' apprentice) Walther ultimately receives help from the cobbler himself. Sachs is a widower, and a contender to marry the beautiful Eva, but he ultimately decides to let young love win the day. This famous character is based on a famous poet, who really was a shoemaker, part of the country's up-and-coming burgher class who did much to preserve the tradition of German music in the late medieval period.

Sachs shows Walther how to temper his artistic gifts into a musical form tha his listeners can digest and appreciate, creating a "Prize-Song" that is guaranteed to win at the contest. Along the way, both songwriters must contend with Beckmesser, the town tax collector who is also out to marry Eva. Beckmesser actually steals the prize-song in the third act, but mangles it in public performance. This gives Walther the opportunity to prove himself as a composer, and win Eva's hand in front of the whole town.

At the heart of Meistersinger is Wagner's music, which combines the composer's own melodic skill with a newfound interest in counterpoint, church modes, and comic scenes that verge on the burlesque. True, the opera has a heavy-handed sense of humor (Beckmesser's midnight serenade provokes an onstage beat-down and a town riot) but the libretto is also filled with brilliant moments that provide philosophic insight on the meaning of life.

Recording Recommendations:
There are at least a dozen Meistersingers in the catalogue. Though a number of them have all-star casts and famous conductors, many fall short of capturing the brilliance and effervescence of Wagner's version of Nuremberg. Here's three good ones:

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Hans Knappertsbusch (Decca, 1950/'51)
Sachs: Paul Schöffler
Walther: Gunther Treptow
Eva: Hilde Gueden
This is a mono recording made in a Vienna recording studio. It captures the unique quality that "Kna" brought to Wagner. the organ-like tone of the horns and the near-faultless sense of rhythm and when to let the music stretch and luxuriate in the lushest passages. Good cast, slightly past their prime, esp. Treptow. Out of print for many years, but now available from Naxos.

Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra cond. Rafael Kubelik (Arts Archives, 1967)
Sachs: Thomas Stewart
Walther: Sandor Konya
Eva: Gundula Janowitz
Made by the DG team (and then shelved for 25 years in favor of the flashy Eugen Jochum recording with Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau as Sachs) this is the best studio Meistersinger ever recorded. Stewart, Konya and Janowitz are caught in ideal form. It has been issued three times and is currently in print on the small Arts Archives label. Go buy it.

Bavarian State Opera cond. Wolfgang Sawallisch (EMI, 1993)
Sachs: Bernd Weikl
Walther: Ben Heppner
Eva: Cheryl Studer
This was the recording that got me "into" this opera. Superbly conducted and paced with a fine North American pair of lovers in Studer and Heppner. He is caught in his early prime--she was starting her decline but is a potent, fresh Eva. Bernd Weikl is a good actor though his voice was starting to fade. Kurt Moll rocks the house as Veit Pogner. Now a mid-priced box from EMI.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Off Topic: The Saxophone Colossus

"And last but not least.  Do I have to say his name?  Do I have to speak his name?  Do I have to say his name?  In this corner: the king of the world, master of the Universe, weighing in at 260 pounds...The Big Man, Clarence Clemons!"
--Bruce Springsteen, from the live version of "Rosalita (Come Out Tonight)".

"I want you to think about the beautiful symphonic sound that came out of one man's saxophone.
I want you to think about Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band of Brothers.
I want you to think of Clarence Clemons.
This man just carried music and music carried him until this day."
--Bono, last night in Anaheim.
Clarence Clemons. Photo by Danny Clinch,
© 2011 BruceSpringsteen.Net
This morning, the opera iPod is silent in favor of watching Bruce Springsteen on VH1 Classic, remembering the genius of the recently departed Clarence Clemons, saxophonist in the E Street Band. I've been a Bruce fan for years. I was 11 when Born in the USA came out. But it was the Live 1975-85 album (on three cassettes) that was my early songbook. That long version of Rosalita (Come Out Tonight) with the wonderfully over-the-top introduction of Clarence Clemons

I sort of lost track of Bruce when he broke up the E Street Band although I always liked the 'old' stuff and especially his solo albums Nebraska and The Ghost of Tom Joad. For my money, "Highway Patrolman" is the best song he ever wrote.

I saw the rejuvenated, reunited E Street Band live, once, on The Rising tour in Ottawa, ON (in 2003) and I've always loved the way he tells stories through complex imagery and lyrics--much like the post I wrote last week about lieder and its ultimate influence on rock and roll.

The Rising was also a very "healing" record for me. I'm a native New Yorker and the whole record is about the tragedy and after-effects of the events of Sept. 11, 2001.

That said, this isn't usually a blog about Springsteen (or this great sax player.) But we'll end with something opera-related, the lyrics from the second verse of classic Bruce track "Jungleland."

"The midnight gangs assembled, and picked a rendezvous for the night,
They'll meet `neath that giant EXXON sign that brings this fair city light,
Man there's an opera out on the Turnpike,
There's a ballet being fought out in the alley,
Until the local cops, cherry tops, rips this holy night.
The street's alive, as secret debts are paid,
Contacts made, they vanished unseen.
Kids flash guitars just like switch-blades, hustling for the record machine,
The hungry and the hunted explode into rock 'n' roll bands,
That face off against each other out in the street,
down in Jungleland."
And here's the song, complete with Clarence's magnificent sax solo. Enjoy, and we'll get back to classical music tomorrow.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Concert Review: The Redemption of Gil Shaham

Gil Shaham in the park
The Walton Concerto, with the New York Philharmonic

It is not often that one gets to hear the same soloist play the same concerto in the course of a month, with a different orchestra and conductor. Friday's matinee performance by the New York Philharmonic featured Gil Shaham playing William Walton's lone Violin Concerto, a 20th century composition which blends post-Romanticism and jazz influences to create one of the composer's most enduring works.

Here, Mr. Shaham played with firm, robust tone, soaring where he previously skittered, and racing through the complex solo passages with robust tone and an intimate warmth. The intonation problems and reediness that plagued last month's Philadelphia Orchestra concert had disappeared. The soloist was smoothly accompanied by conductor Ludovic Morlot.

Mr. Morlot is a French conductor on the rise, with a brisk style that brought out clarity and depth throughout the complex textures of the orchestra. These qualities extended to the rest of the program, which explored the deep connection between the Russian compositions of Modest Mussorgsky and the music of Maurice Ravel

The concert opened with the prelude to Mussorgsky's unfinished opera Khovanschinha, a brief, evocative tone poem also known as "Dawn over the Moscow River." Khovanschinha tells the story of the rise of Tsar Peter the Great by showing the effect of Russia's political struggles across all levels of society.

This performance used Rimsky-Korsakov's orchestration, and Mr. Morlot brought out the shimmering, impressionistic textures in strings and woodwinds, firmly supported by the Philharmonic horns. If it seemed a little light in weight for such a serious piece, the fault may lie with Rimsky, who made a posthumous effort to "brighten" his friend's often gloomy music.

The second half of the program started with Ravel's Pavane pour un Infante Defunte, played at a brisk pace, as if Mr. Morlot wanted to get the funeral proceedings over quickly. It was followed by that composer's orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition, a work that always brings out the best in this orchestra.

Pictures was originally a piano composition, ad Mr. Morlot's leading of the piece brought out some of the work's original, rugged qualities through Ravel's elaborate orchestration. Fine playing from a number of Philharmonic soloists, including tubist Alan Baer, the trumpets and horns, and of course the woodwinds, made for an invigorating stroll through Mussorgsky's imaginary gallery. The final Great Gate of Kiev was played with power and authority, in a resonant affirmation of Mussorgsky's genius.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

From Mahler to Meat Loaf

Rock's Roots in the 19th Century Art Song
A modern composer: Jim Steinman.

Today, the 19th century art song (lieder in German, chanson in French) is not as popular a form of so-called "classical" music as the opera or the symphony. Art songs are small and intimate, micro-pictures and stories that last from three to seven minutes...wait...doesn't that sound like a description of rock and roll radio?

These compact works by composers like Schubert, Schumann, Berlioz and Wolf are essential to an understanding of the development of Romantic music. But you could also look at them as ancestors of the modern rock song as developed in the last half a century. Like rock songwriters, composers of art songs were interested in breaking new ground, ignoring the constraints of form to create original musical settings that resonate today.

Schubert's "Der Erlkönig" which has some of the drive and drama of rock.
Performed by Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau.
For the last 50-odd years, the rock world has been blessed with a surfeit of good songwriters, from the Brill Building composers to the sandbox fantasias of Brian Wilson. Wilson also incorporated complex harmonies, orchestrations and oddball electronic instruments like the Theremin on his masterpiece "Good Vibrations."

The Beach Boys: 'Good Vibrations' from the aborted Smile project.
The team of Lennon and McCartney, and occasionally Harrison, actually absorbed classical influences (largely through their producer, George Martin) and studio techniques that were originally created for the preservation of operas and symphonies on vinyl. By the way the idea for this song came from a circus poster.

The Beatles: "Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" from Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Folk music developed in North America, where "folkies" like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger gave way to Bob Dylan, Neil Young and Joni Mitchell. Those three artists also struck out in new and different directions: Dylan plugged in, Neil un-plugged and Joni worked with jazz bass god Jaco Pastorius. Like the composers a century before, songwriters put the importace of art over the happiness of their audiences or even commercial success:

Neil Young pushes the envelope. "Sample and Hold" from Trans © 1982

Like 19th century lieder, some rock songs are often based on poetry or literature. Heavy metal bands (Iron Maiden, for one) regularly raid the Oxford Book of English Verse, producing songs like "The Trooper", (Tennyson) and "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" (Coleridge):

Iron Maiden performing 'The Trooper' from Death on the Road.
These poems get rewritten into elaborate musical arrangements of power and bombast, much like the orchestral songs of Berlioz or Mahler. And speaking of bombast, the songs of Jim Steinman combine Wagnerian chord progressions with the '50s songwriting sensibility of Lieber and Stoller. He even rewrote some of his songs for a German musical called Tanz der Vampire, which brings things full circle:

Jim Steinman's "Gott is tot" from the musical Tanz der Vampire.
This song was originally in English and called "Original Sin."
Today, the music of a century ago continues to influence what we put into our IPods. In between outfits, Lady Gaga has repeatedly demonstrated the influence of her own classical training. Metal has its share of heldentenors. And classical instrumentalists have even tried their hand at reworking pop songs, like these guys: 2Cellos, covering Michael Jackson.

DVD Review: The Wreck of the Flying Dutchman

Der Fliegende Holländer from the Netherlands Opera
Juha Uusitalo in the title role of Der Fliegende Holländer.
Photo from the Netherlands Opera © 2010 Opus Arte
This brilliant, occasionally terrifying production of Wagner's Der Fliegende Holländer comes, appropriately enough, from the Netherlands Opera. It is conducted by Hartmut Hänchen, who led an interesting Dutch DVD set of The Ring a few years ago. In fact it's really good until it sinks (with all hands) in the final scene.

Things start promisingly. Director Martin Kusej moves the action to a cruise ship, perhaps somewhere in the Bermuda Triangle. Daland is a "Love Boat"captain in naval whites and mirror shades. The Steersman puts on a gold lamé jacket before singing. Daland's crew and the Sandwyk villagers are re-imagined as vulgar tourists, scurrying about in life vests, carrying suitcases, bathing poolside, and wearing "party wigs" in the final act. The Dutchman's crew are strange and shadowy, monk-like in dark cowls.

In the middle of all this we find the Dutchman, played with intensity by Finnish bass Juha Uusitalo. Mr. Uusitalo is a hulking, intimidating presence, under a bald pate and glaring through ice-blue eyes. It doesn't hurt that he has a voice to match, billowing and blustery when needed and bringing the power when needed to fight over the orchestra. He is in the position of a refugee seeking asylum, but is treated as an unwelcome intrusion of reality into the insulated world of Captain Daland's cruise ship.

Senta (Catherine Naglestad) is his ideal match, the one serious (old-fashioned?) woman on a ship full of frivolity. It is significant that she is the only one spinning in the second act. The other girls bully her and try to play "keep-away" with her wheel. The soprano sings with power, delivering a fine ballad and engaging in a powerful duet with Mr. Uusitalo helped by the conductor's crisp tempos. Their love affair is like the meeting of two high school nerds with limited social interactive ability. The big duet in Act II is both delicious and painful to watch.

Things come to a head in the Act III trio, with Marco Jentsch making a marginally sympathetic figure out of Erik. In a brilliant moment, this ensemble is performed with Mr. Uusuitalo onstage, and his emotional reactions at the dialogue between Senta and Erik is visceral, almost painful to watch. The trio that follows is everything it should be, the emotional core of the drama and Senta's conflict laid bare even as Wagner's orchestra batters at the senses. However, the unbelievable, altered ending (Erik shoots the Dutchman and Senta dead) kills the final act and leaves a sour taste.

Hartmut Haenchen opts for an energetic reading of the score, with the famous salt-spray figures and charging horns prominent in the famous overture. He takes the three acts without an intermission, but opts for Wagner's revised "redemption" music, both at the end of the Overture and the finale of the third act. The choral singing (all-important in this opera is tight and snappy, leading to a virtuoso moment in the third act when the two worlds collide. If it weren't for that ending, this Dutchman would be highly recommended.
Watch a trailer for Der Fliegende Holländer here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Opera Review: From Paris, to Venice, to Bensonhurst

Regina Opera presents Les contes d'Hoffmann

In a palace on the Grand Canal in Venice, the courtesan Giulietta (Christina Rohm, left) and
 Nicklausse (Margaret O'Connell, right) a friend of the poet Hoffmann,  sing a romantic barcarolle.
Photo by Art Lawson © 2011 Regina Opera.
Brooklyn's own Regina Opera closed its 2011 season this month with a potent performance of Jacques Offenbach's final opera, Les contes d'Hoffmann.

Hoffmann (sung by tenor Ubaldo Feliciano-Hernandez) is a fictionalized version of an actual 19th century poet, best remembered today for creating the original story of the Nutcracker. In this opera, he finds himself at the center of three of his own stories, pursuing love with an automaton (Olympia), a courtesan (Giulietta) and a sickly would-be opera singer (Antonia), and his moral deterioration and despair. Eventually, he realizes that all three women are different aspects of his beloved Stella. Ultimately, he rejects her to continue his work.

Part of the problem with putting on this opera is figuring out which version of the score to use. Offenbach died before finishing the work, so there are a number of options, most of them provided by musicologists and men of the theater. For this staging, the director Scott Jackson Wiley made conservative choices. He placed the Antonia act, with its dramatic finish at the end of the opera. Dappertutto's aria from the Venetian act, ("Scintille, diamant") was transported to the Olympia act, using alternate lyrics provided by conductor Anthony Morss. The result: a taut, sleek performance that made this opera's considerable length go by at a rapid pace.

The performance featured a strong cast. Ubaldo Feliciano-Hernandez overcame a small cold to deliver a powerful, ardent Hoffmann, capable of the work's tragi-comic moments and passionate in his long duet with Antonia. Bass-baritone Bryce Smith was stellar in the quadruple roles of the Four Villains, bringing a different kind of evil to each of Hoffmann's nemeses. The highlight of his performance was the rarely heard 'Tourne, tourne miroir," written by Offenbach but rejected by many singers as being too treacherous.

Offenbach intended for the leading ladies to be sung by the same soprano. This production split the role, allowing a series of engaging singers their turn in the spotlight. Andrea Bargabos soared through the role of the doll Olympia, hitting the difficult series of high coloratura figures in "Les oiseaux." She also engaged in robotic physical comedy, remaining in character for her curtain call. Christina Rohm was a sultry Giulietta, with a rich instrument.

As Antonia, Maryann Mootos has a big, unsubtle instrument that was a little large for the hall, but sang beautifully in her duet and in the trio that brings her act to its fatal climax. And although the double role of the Muse/Nicklausse was shortened in this version of the opera, Margaret O'Connell was exceptional, handling the gender-bending of the part convincingly and engaging in a lush, sensual "Barcarolle" with Ms. Rohm.

For the last four decades, Regina Opera has brought the works of Verdi, Puccini, and other masters to their Brooklyn neighborhood. Based in a small church auditorium, their innovative productions use a full orchestra of professional musicians. Director Linda Lehr did much with limited resources, creating a convincing German tavern and a sensual Venetian bordello. The latter was a picture of Carnival decadence with veils, masks and a whiff of S & M. Too strong of a whiff for some. The couple behind us left, shocked.

Monday, June 13, 2011

DVD Review: A Sneak Peek at the Apocalypse.

Franz Welser-Möst. Note the blue cufflinks.
Photo by Roger Mastrioanni © 2011 The Cleveland Orchestra.
Saturday night's free event at the Rubinstein Atrium offered a sneak peek at a major event from this year's Lincoln Center Festival: the first annual residency of the Cleveland Orchestra. The program featured a the screening of a new DVD of Bruckner's Eighth Symphony, performed by the Orchestra under the baton of music director Franz Welser-Möst.

Anton Bruckner's fame rests on his cycle of symphonies: nine offical ones and two that the composer rejected. Bruckner symphonies massive works that require a veritable army of musicians to perform. The Eighth (nicknamed the 'Apocalyptic') is the last symphony that he completed, a gigantic work requiring a dozen horn players, an arsenal of woodwinds and a good-sized army of strings. Although it starts quietly, the work builds to a series of swelling, thunderous climaxes, and at the close of its fourth movement seems to rip through the vault of heaven to gaze upon the cosmic truths beyond.

Bruckner is a passion and a cause for this Austrian conductor, who was born and raised only a few miles away from the composer's hometown of Ansfelden, now a suburb of Linz. This July, Mr. Welser-Möst will bring that passion to Bruckner (r)Evolution, four concerts featuring major Bruckner symphonies (the Fifth, Seventh, Eighth and the unfinished Ninth) with compositions by American minimalist John Adams. By bringing these two composers together, Mr. Welser-Möst hopes to show that the composer is the godfather of the modern minimalist movement.

This DVD is remarkable for its close-up camera work, allowing the audience an unusual, intimate look at the orchestral members as well as Mr. Welser-Möst's intensity and focus on the podium . He conducts with his eyes as well as his hands, standing well back from the printed score and only flipping the page when needed. He works hard as he conducts, evidenced by the roll of sweat during the slow, superbly controlled third movement.

Want to see how a big orchestra works? This is your DVD. The oboes, bassoons, and more exotic instruments (like the Wagner tubas) are brought into sharp focus through careful, close camera work. The string players are not neglected, with special attention paid to the first violins and the double basses. The best shot is during the climax of the third movement, when the bell of the contrabass tuba catches the light of Severance Hall in an image that recalls Wagner's Rhine-gold glittering in the depths of the river.

The Cleveland Orchestra is one of the "Big Five", and occupies the smallest city of a major American orchestra. This performance was filmed in August, 2010 in their home venue of Severance Hall. The excellent audio engineering captures the phenomenal sound of the band in this great venue, and careful camera placement and editing ensures that the viewers never see the film crew.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Concert Review: A Valkyrie, Lost in the Woods

Erwartung at the New York Philharmonic with Deborah Voigt
Original stage set design for Erwartung. Crayon, pastel and watercolor by Arnold Schoenberg.
From the composer's collection at the Arnold Schoenberg Center.
This week's concert by the New York Philharmonic exhibited different aspects of early 20th century art, contrasting the surreal, exuberant humor of Shostakovich, the potent symbolism of Rachmaninoff and the sharp-edged expressionism of Schoenberg. David Robertson conducted.

Dmitri Shostakovich wrote his First Symphony as his graduation piece for the Leningrad Conservatory, when he was just 19 years old. It is a powerful, fully mature symphony that is too often dismissed as a work of juvinalia. Although not as dark as the works of Shostakovich's maturity and redolent with the influence of Prokofiev, this is a compelling work that should be performed more frequently.

Mr. Robertson led an engaging performance of the work, with its memorable themes and elegaic little solos for oboe, violin, 'cello and horn. The jaunty, almost nautical theme of the first movement (cribbed by Disney for "Hi diddley-hi" and the elegaic lento movement engaged the audience. The final Allegro, with its long working out of the "fate" theme from Wagner's Die Walküre brought the work to a muscular finish.
The Isle of the Dead by Arnold Böcklin.
Collection of the Kunstmuseum in Basel, Switzerland.
Sergei Rachmaninoff's The Isle of the Dead is a much darker affair. Rachmaninoff's tone poem was inspired by Arnold Böcklin's symbolist painting, a symbolist work that depicts a possible vision of the afterlife. Under Mr. Robertson, the Philharmonic built a slow but mighty crescendo, from the opening figures that depict the oars of Charon's boat leading one to the afterlife to the majestic final bars.

Erwartung is one of Schoenberg's thorniest creations, a 30-minue psychodrama that stretches the ideas of atonality and chromaticism to their absolute limit. The Woman, as she is known, was played by Deborah Voigt, who is currently between Brünnhilde in the Met's Ring Cycle and the title role in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun at this summer's Glimmerglass Festival. 

Ms. Voigt used her deep experience of the long vocal lines of Richard Strauss' operas in order to make a magnificent impression. She brought vocal warmth and vulnerability to put the listener at the center of the Woman's plight. Lost in the woods and terrified of the dark forest, she caressed the words with her voice and evoked the happiness that was once hers.

When her lover's corpse was found, the soprano tapped into the reserves of power she has been building since she decided to transition into the heaviest roles of Wagner and Puccini. On the bright side of Avery Fisher Hall, the soprano cast a cone of shadow, imbuing Schoenberg' psychodrama with touching vulnerability. The opera was expertly played by the Philharmonic under Mr. Robertson's sure baton in a performance that met the high expectations that New York currently has for the Met's Brunnhilde of the moment.

Friday, June 10, 2011

New York Philharmonic Opera Preview: The Cunning Little Vixen

Costume design for the Vixen by Doug Fitch.
Image courtesy Giants Are Small/New York Philharmonic.
© 2011 Giants Are Small.
The New York Philharmonic closes the 2010-2011 season with four complete performances of Leoš Janáček's Příhody Lišky Bystroušky, better known as The Cunning Little Vixen.
The semi-staged production reunites Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert with director Doug Fitch, the same team that created last season's staging of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre. The performances will be sung in English.

The composer wrote his own libretto (based on a Czech comic strip). In his hands, the adventures of a girl fox named Sharp-Ears is the window through which to explore the animal world and man's relationship with nature. The score is filled with rich melodies and lush textures that temper
the composer's singular, angular style. And despite a plot which includes sex, politics, bondage, murder and premarital sex, this is the closest that Janáček ever came to writing a children's opera.

Oh yeah, and it's funny.
The story follows the Vixen through childhood, captivity, courtship, parenting, and ultimately death. Janacek uses the barnyard and forest to satirize women's liberation, worker's rights and the battle of the sexes, as presented in the Vixen's relationship with her eventual mate. The humans are also drawn fully, from the local parson and love-struck schoolmaster to the deeply soulful Forester whose relationship to the Vixen and her natural world is at the crux of the work.

Recording recommendations:
For an opera that is popular with audiences, there are only a few (four) recordings of Vixen in the catalogue. These are the two that I own. The first is in Czech. The second is in English. Both are highly recommended.

Vienna Philharmonic cond. Sir Charles Mackerras (Decca, 1985)
Forester: Dalibor Jedlicka
The Vixen, Sharp-Ears: Lucia Popp
The Fox: Eva Randova

Royal Opera House of Covent Garden cond. Sir Simon Rattle (EMI, 1991, reissued by Chandos)
Forester: Thomas Allen
The Vixen, Sharp-Ears: Lillian Watson
The Fox: Diana Montague

Watch the first scene from Geoff Dunbar's enchanting animated version of The Cunning Little Vixen, made for the BBC in 2003.

The Salzburg Switcheroo

There's a new sheriff in Salzburg. And a new orchestra too.

Christan Thielemann
Starting in 2013, the Festival will be anchored by the Dresden Staatskapelle and its new music director, Christian Thielemann. Mr. Thielemann will also take the post of Festival music director, and will divide his time between Salzburg, Dresden, and other international commitments. He replaces Sir Simon Rattle.

According to a report in today's New York Times, the switch came because of a contract dispute between the Berlin players and the Salzburg Festival. The Berliners decided to take up a residency at Baden-Baden. But Dresden's orchestra is a world-class ensemble. Although they are not as well known outside of Germany, they are considered one of the great German ensembles, with a tone and timbre of their very own.

This is the second major Festival appointment for Mr. Thielemann, a Berlin-born maestro whose best performances recall the conducting of Wilhelm Furtwängler. His other conducting jobs have included the Munich Philharmonic and the Deutsches Oper Berlin. In 2008, Mr. Thielemann accepted the post of artistic advisor at the Bayreuth Festival, dedicated to the works of Richard Wagner. He has conducted and recorded a number of Wagner operas at Bayreuth, including a complete Ring.

Since its founding by Herbert von Karajan in 1967, the Salzburg Easter Festival (planned as a companion piece to the summer Salzburg Festival, has been the springtime home of the Berlin Philharmonic. The Festival offers a week of concert and operas in the Austrian city that was the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and is one of the most important international festivals.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Melto Allegro: The Electric Beethoven

Beethoven goes metal. Image ©
Or: Another Article About Metal Meeting Classical Music.
Since the early days of heavy metal, the genre has always been strongly influenced by classical music. Deep Purple recorded Concerto for Group and Orchestra. Iron Maiden appropriated the galloping rhythm of the William Tell Overture for half the songs in their early catalogue.

Guitar playing took influence from classical music as well. Richie Blackmore (Deep Purple) led the charge, incorporating classical-type scales and modes over blues stylings. In Germany, Uli Jon Roth's playing on the first five Scorpions albums influenced a generation of metal guitarists, including Metallica's Kirk Hammett.

In the 1980s, the influence of guitarists Richie Blackmore (Deep Purple) and Uli Jon Roth (the Scorpions) led to an explosion of neo-classical technique among heavy metal guitar players. Eddie Van Halen's "Eruption" showed would-be guitarists how to make their fretboards sound like a Bach fugue--in less than two minutes.

Guitarists like Yngwie J. Malmsteen, Paul Gilbert and Steve Vai incorporated sweep picking, arpeggios, and Bach-like tapping figures into their styles, often with dazzling results. Below, two versions of the first movement of Beethoven's Fifth, illustrating two different approaches to re-imagining this seminal movement.

Mr. Malmsteen is better known for his high-speed arpeggiated chops than his ability to write good songs or keep a working band together. Note the upper "scalloped" fretboard, with grooves cut between the frets to allow for faster playing. And then there's the bling--which doesn't appear to slow the Swedish speedster down.

Steve Vai's career started when he was just 19, as a transcriber, and then a second lead guitarist for Frank Zappa's working band. Vai then went on to stardom with ex-Van Halen vocalist David Lee Roth, introducing listeners to his trademark "laughing guitar" and expanding the instrument's range and depth. He has a different, less reverent approach to the music. I don't know the source of this performance.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Opera Review: In Search of New Roots

City Opera Explores Treemonisha in Harlem
Scott Joplin, composer of Treemonisha.

On Monday night, the New York City Opera gave a concert performance at Harlem's Schomburg Center, performing excerpts from Scott Joplin's too rarely heard opera Treemonisha. Joplin is remembered today as the father of ragtime but struggled all his life to be counted as a composer of serious music.

Those who know Joplin from the "Maple Leaf Rag" or "Solace" (played before the opera by Mr. Roy Eaton) might be surprised by the soaring arias and rich choral textures of Treemonisha. The two-act opera has passages inspired by Handel, Beethoven and Wagner, shot through with Joplin's own gift for memorable melody. One number, the closing "A Real Slow Drag" was so memorable that it wound up a major hit--for Irving Berlin, who hijacked the melody to write "Alexander's Ragtime Band."

Like Wagner, Joplin wrote his own libretto, creating a small town where a local girl (the title character, found under a tree as an infant) overcomes superstition and the depradations of three traveling con artists to rise up and become a pillar of her community. In some way, the uplifting Treemonisha is a counterpart to Carlisle Floyd's later opera Susannah, in which a child of nature is destroyed by a lustful preacher.

The excerpts were performed by a cast of five singers and two dancers, accompanied by pianist Bradley Moore. Soprano Marsha Thompson soared in the title role. Baritone Kenneth Overton and mezzo Krysty Swann sang with fine, powerful voices. Ms. Swann reached powerful heights with "The Sacred Tree", chronicling Treemonisha's birth. Tenor Robert Mack and bass-baritone Kevin Thompson were also an important part of the ensemble, creating rich barbershop-style textures in ensembles like "Bag of Luck" and "We're Going Around."

The program, hosted by Roy Eaton combined a jumble of scenes and numbers from the opera with spoken poetry from several important African-American poets (including Langston Hughes and Maya Angelou) evoking the importance of dreams. A slide show depicted Joplin's Harlem roots, and Mr. Eaton spoke eloquently of the parallels between Joplin's piano "rags" and the "serious" works of Chopin and Brahms.

For the past three years City Opera has previewed important works at the Langston Hughes Auditorium. But following the company's announced decision to uproot itself from Lincoln Center, this performance carried new meaning and a chilling portent of what may be in store for the diminished, downsized company. Let's hope that the company's next stab at Treemonisha will be as Scott Joplin intended, in a proper opera house with a full band in the pit and company of singers and dancers onstage. That would be a good dream.

Monday, June 6, 2011

CD Review: He Knew Where His Towel Was

James Levine's 1970s Mahler Symphonies
by Paul J. Pelkonen
James Levine: the early years. Photo from Metropolitan Opera Archives.
The current epidemic of Mahler mania (2010 and 2011 mark both the composer's 150th birthday and the centennial of his death) has caused the four remaining major record labels to flood the shrinking market with reissues of Mahler symphonies. This "incomplete" set of Mahler symphonies (the Second and Eighth are missing) features a much younger, healthier James Levine, at the peak of his powers and staking his claim as a great conductor of Mahler's music.

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Opera Review: A Modern German Take on Greek Myth

Henze's Phaedra Premieres in Philadelphia.

Cage match: A scene from Act Two of Phaedra. 
Photo by Katherine Elliot, © 2011 Opera Company of Philadelphia
This weekend at the Kimmel Center, the Opera Company of Philadelphia concluded its 35th season with Hans Werner Henze's 2007 opera Phaedra, a knotty work steeped in German serialism and Greek myth. The performances, conducted by Corrado Rivaris, mark the work's United States premiere.

The story is based on Euripides' treatment of the Phaedra myth. Phaedra is the wife of Theseus, the Athenian hero best known for slaying the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of Knossos. The opera opens with the death of the beast. Things take a sharply personal turn as Phaedra falls in love with her step-son Hippolyte, an illicit affair that results in disaster and the latter's death.

Henze originally stopped there, but real life led to the creation of a second act. In 2005, the composer was struck with a mysterious illness and fell into a coma for two months. Upon reviving, he worked with librettist Christian Lehnert to provide a second act and create a scenario in which Hippolyte is resurrected and crowned as king of the forests by the goddess Artemis. The final result was a 75-minute opera in two acts, performed here without an intermission.

The score of Phaedra owes much to Richard Strauss' late style and the 12-tone writing of Alban Berg. Henze makes use of a powerful brass and wind sectin in his score, supporting them with an elaborate percussion section and minimal strings. Tuned keyboard instruments are featured alongside "found" sounds, including the recording of a buzz-saw and what might be the first cellular phone ever used in an opera. Unusual amplification of instruments like the harp provide dense, otherworldly textures, a fitting background to the fantastical plot.

This work proved potent in performance. Mezzo-soprano Tamara Mumford (Flosshilde in the Met's new Das Rheingold) brought physical and vocal athleticism to the title role. Heroic tenor William Burden was compelling as the dead-then-resurrected Hippolyte, the object of his step-mom's obsession. The hunt goddess Artemis was subject to some gender-bending, with countertenor Anthony Roth Costanzo singing the part. Mr. Costanzo's performance combined impressive vocal gyrations with a fierce dramatic heart. Finally, Elizabeth Reiter was impressive in the small role of Aphrodite, singing her duet with Phaedra to Hippolyte as he was trapped in a cage.

If Phaedra sounds like heady, pretentious stuff, it is. But it also the latest in a long operatic tradition of putting fresh spins on familiar mythology, one that stretches from Monteverdi's Orfeo, through the operas of Handel, Haydn and Mozart to the late stage works of Richard Strauss (Daphne and Das Liebe der Danaë.) At this late state in his career, the octegenarian Henze makes his case as an important composer of opera, a visionary whose work can still compel and thrill the adventurous listener.

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