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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, May 31, 2012

Conducting Up a Storm

The June Philharmonic Preview
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cartoon by Ward, reproduced from the Stockhausen Cartoon Archive. © the artist.
The Metropolitan Opera has shifted into ballet hosting/fund-raising mode. Carnegie Hall is hosting graduation ceremonies. So the eyes and ears of New York's classical music cognoscenti turn to Avery Fisher Hall, the longtime home of the New York Philharmonic.

During Alan Gilbert's term as music director, June has become an exciting time for experimentation for New York's oldest orchestra. The ensemble offers an exciting slate of concerts, from the traditional (lots of Mozart) to the experimental (the season-ending Philharmonic 360 concerts, held in the Drill Hall of the Park Avenue Armory.

Here's what's scheduled:

On June 1 and 2, the Philharmonic offers the last two performances of Carl Orff's massive Carmina Burana under the baton of Rafael Frühbeck de Burgos. A stellar cast of singers (including tenor Nicholas Phan) is scheduled.

DVD Review: Queen Takes Knight

Nina Stemme in the Glyndebourne Tristan und Isolde.
by Paul Pelkonen
First-date jitters: Isolde (Nina Stemme) confronts Tristan (Robert Gambill) at Glyndebourne.
Photo © 2007 Glydebourne Festival/Opus Arte.
In the last decade, soprano Nina Stemme has transited from singing Mozart to heavier German repertory. This three-DVD set, released in 2008 by OpusArte captures Ms. Stemme as Isolde in the Glyndebourne Festival's first-ever staging of a Wagner opera. Jiří Bělohlávek conducts the London Philharmonic in a sweeping, slow reading of the score that draws out much of Wagner's musical detail.

The Irish princess is one of the most complicated roles in opera, traveling from rage to redemption and stopping along the way to fall in love with Tristan, the Cornish knight assigned to bring her to his feudal lord, King Marke. Ms. Stemme sings the two Act I narratives with power and detail, injecting vivid meaning into each word as she tells Brangäne of Tristan's betrayal.

In this Spartan setting by Nikolaus Lehnoff, those details are necessary for the viewer to understand what's going on. Set designer Roland Aeschlimann creates an abstract space, a large torus that looks like the "Guardian of Forever" on the original Star Trek. All the characters move through this torus which is carefully lit to reflect contrasting moods. The only ill effect of this "mystic donut" is that it muffles the chorus and offstage horns.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Recordings Review: Polishing the Apple

Antonio Pappano's EMI William Tell
by Paul Pelkonen
Conductor Antonio Pappano in an apple endorsement. Image © 2011 EMI Classics.
Guillaume Tell is Rossini's last opera. Written in 1829, it is a sweeping, sophisticated work with a killer role for the tenor, a baritone part that doesn't get an aria, and a stirring overture that is the only part of the work that remains in the standard performing repertory.

Since this opera is rarely performed, the arrival of a new recording of Tell--let alone a live one is cause for surprise. Even better, this three-disc issue from EMI (released in 2011) was made at six concerts in Rome by Antonio Pappano, an experienced conductor in 19th century repertory. Mr. Pappano, working here with the Orchestra and Chorus of the National Academy of St. Cecilia, (which he has led for the past five years) presents an invigorating account that may do much to restore the reputation of this opera as a vast, sweeping work that, despite dramatic flaws, contains some of Rossini's finest music in its four acts. 

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Memories of the Gelb Administration

The Five Best (and Five Worst) Opera Productions at the Met, 2006-2012.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Aithra (Diana Damrau, L.) and Helena (Deborah Voigt, R.) extoll the virtues of the 
Omniscient Mussel (Jill Groves, standing, obscured) in Act I of Strauss' Die Ägyptische Helena. 
Photo by Ken Howard © 2007 The Metropolitan Opera.
Since beginning his tenure as general manager of the Met in 2006, Peter Gelb has been a fierce advocate for new productions. The current administration has ushered in seven new shows each season. If you do the math (and it's not hard) 42 new stagings have taken the boards.

This ambitious program has been advanced through cooperation with other opera houses, including the English National Opera, the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden and the Opera Lyon. Mr. Gelb has followed the old Broadway practice of "road testing" shows in international theaters before bringing them to New York.

Following the recent "kerfuffle" ('s term) over the Met's attempts at censoring bloggers and opera magazines it seems that the time is right to do a "greatest hits" of the last six years at the Met. Chronological order--click the links for the whole reviews.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Opera Review: Possession Obsession

Opera Moderne presents The Turn of the Screw.
by Paul Pelkonen
Promotional art for The Turn of the Screw. Image © 2012 Opera Moderne.
On Saturday night, the Opera Moderne, a modest Manhattan company new to this publication ended its 2012 season with a taut performance of Benjamin Britten's The Turn of the Screw at Symphony Space.

Britten's opera (the libretto is by Myfanwy Piper) is not a straightforward adaptation of  Henry James' ambiguous ghost story. In Ms. Piper's version, the ghosts Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are actual supernatural forces, preying on two innocent children at the Essex country estate of Bly. (James' novella leaves the reader unsure if the Governess is seeing things or slowly going insane.)

Sunday, May 27, 2012

The 2012 Superconductor Summer Preview

Our handy one-stop guide to summer concerts and festivals.
International opera sensation Homer Simpson presents a cogent argument for
going to Tanglewood instead of the beach. Image © Gracie Films, from PopArt.Uk.
The days are getting long and barbecue grills are firing up. But in between bites, there's a smorgasbord of classical music and opera on offer this summer. We present our guide to the best of what's coming up in the summer months.
In New York

The River to River Festival is a month-long event taking place in Manhattan at various venues. It opens June 17 at the Winter Garden with the 2012 Bang on a Can Marathon a free 12-hour event of modern music. On June 20, the Philip Glass Ensemble gives its only free concert of the year, giving concert-goers the opportunity to sing along with Mr. Glass' group. 

At the Lincoln Center campus, there is programming all summer long with a bevy of entertainment options . In addition to the outdoor dance party A Midsummer Night's Swing and the jazz and world music oriented Lincoln Center Out of Doors, there's the Lincoln Center Festival.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

The Gallery of Bad Album Art

Another irreverent look at classical music and how it's packaged.
by Paul Pelkonen
We've gone from this.... this. Granted, this is cheaper.

The art of the classical music album cover has enjoyed a steep downward spiral in the past decade. Faced with the prospect of compressing their catalogues into boxed sets that have very low sales numbers to begin with, the major labels have resorted to cheap-o artwork that is designed to look good on the touch-screen of an iPhone. 

In the quest to create these "iconic" images for their back catalogues, the few record companies that survive have come up with some covers that look like they were done by a kindergarten student. Others are awesomely tasteless, and a few are just plain dull. We offer ten examples below, and we save the best for last.
The Egyptian slave would be rolling in her grave if he saw this kiddie-style design
for Aida. The whole Opera! series from Universal suffers from similar art.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Opera Review: The Invisible Head

The Cleveland Orchestra mounts Salome at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen
The girl who has everything: soprano Nina Stemme.
Photo © EMI Classics.

The finest opera performance of the spring 2012 season in New York was at Carnegie Hall last night, when the Cleveland Orchestra presented a complete performance of Richard Strauss' Salome, under their music director Franz Welser-Möst.

Salome needs little introduction. Strauss' first successful opera (he used to brag that it paid for his villa) uses the composer's stunning orchestral gifts to bring the story of the Princess Salome and her unhealthy obsession with Jokaanan (John the Baptist) to vivid life. In a concert setting though, the traditional props: Herod's death-ring, the executioner's sword, and the prophet's bloody, severed head are invisible. It is up to the orchestra to tell the story.

Mr. Welser-Möst, who also serves as music director of the Vienna State Opera, accomplished an astonishing effect in this performance. Somehow, his Cleveland players sounded "Viennese", putting a lilt under strings and winds, and driving the work with a light, frothy texture. The big brass themes for Jokaanan (John the Baptist) were played with sonorous beauty, and the vague Orientalisms of the Dance of the Seven Veils appeared in sharp relief.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

He's Goin' Back to Cali

Philharmonic concertmaster Glenn Dicterow to step down.
by Paul Pelkonen
Glenn Dicterow will leave the New York Philharmonic in 2014.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2012 The New York Philharmonic.
Violinist Glenn Dicterow is leaving his position as concertmaster of the New York Philharmonic. He will step down at the end of the 2013-2014 season.

In a statement issued by the New York Philharmonic press department, Mr. Dicterow, who is currently in the midst of a series of concerts as soloist in Bartók's First Violin Concerto, announced today that he is leaving the position that he has held at the orchestra for the past 34 years.

Brother, Can You Spare $250,000?

City Opera seeks help to balance its budget.
A certain economy informs costume design at
the new City Opera. Image by Wacky Clip Art. 
by Paul Pelkonen
Despite reducing costs by cutting the expense of cutting orchestra, chorus and residency at Lincoln Center, the New York City Opera is still facing financial problems.

In a letter sent to the author's personal mailbox, City Opera general manager George Steel is soliciting donations of $250 in an effort to help his troubled opera company balance its budget for the fiscal year. The letter mentioned a fund-raising goal of $250,000

In the past calendar year, Mr. Steel has made headlines on this blog and elsewhere. The company moved out of its Lincoln Center home at the former New York State Theater, citing the high cost of using the facility. Then, City Opera cut its schedule to four operas and a total of just 16 performances.

Over the winter months, engaged in a messy dispute with Musicians Local 802 and the American Guild of Musical Artists, the unions that represent the company's orchestra and chorus. That dispute was resolved in January in an eleventh-hour compromise that favored the opera company.

Concert Review: The Fiddle in the Bullpen

Gil Shaham steps in with the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen 
Off the bench: violinist Gil Shaham.
Photo by Boyd Hagen.

There was nothing conventional about Wednesday night's concert by the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall, the first of two appearances by this venerable American ensemble this week. 

To start with, there was a last minute program change.

The e-mail came at 10am from the Carnegie Hall press office. The pianist Yefim Bronfman was ill. His replacement would be violinist Gil Shaham. The music would still be Brahms: the Violin Concerto. 

When you factor in a lack of rehearsal time and the impromptu nature of the first half the eveningm this was still a compelling performance. Mr. Shaham was  at home in this music, grooving on the sounds made by the first violins when he wasn't playing, and spinning sweet melodies over the rich orchestral texture. The violinist brought athleticism and musicianship to the vast musical arches of the opening movement, supported firmly by Mr. Welser-Möst.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Concert Review: The California Effect

Alan Gilbert and the Philharmonic give fresh legs to familiar music.
Back from California: Philharmonic music director Alan Gilbert.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2012 The New York Philharmonic.
Last week, the New York Philharmonic returned to Avery Fisher Hall from a rare tour of California. It could be the water in the Golden State. It could be the fact that the orchestra just began the last act of a long season. Either way, Tuesday night's concert under the baton of music director Alan Gilbert showed an ensemble that sounded renewed and rejuvenated.

It's not often that a reviewer hears the same orchestra play the same music three weeks apart. The pieces in question: Antonín Dvořák's Carnival Overture and the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 4 were played at the start of the month, book-ending composer-in-residence Magnus Lindberg's new piano concerto.

The rekindling of the band's inner fire was apparent from the opening bars of the Carnival Overture. Mr. Gilbert drew potent, muscular rhythms and clear textures from the skilled woodwind soloists of the Philharmonic. The second section, with its folk melodies for woodwinds and cellos was a study in the Philharmonic's rich, satisfying sound. 

DVD Review: Minstrel in the Gallery

A Tannhäuser from Barcelona embraces the art world.
by Paul Pelkonen
Once upon a mattress: Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert. left) confronts Venus
 (Bèatrice Uria-Monzon, standing) in Act I of Wagner's drama.
Photo by Anoni Bofill © 2008 Teatro Liceu de Barcelona.
In Robert Carsen's production of Tannhäuser (filmed in 2008 at the Teatro de Liceu in Barcelona), Wagner's medieval minstrel is reimagined as a contemporary artist, walking a tightrope between willing, naked figure models and the glitzy world of gallery openings.

Tannhäuser is about pilgrimage, whether the title character's own transition from the sensual world of Venus to our own, harsher reality or the treks to Rome and back in quest of redemption. In this staging, "reality" is the plastic world of a gallery opening, and a controversial new painting (presumably of Venus) is his "harp," the representation of artistic expression for the troubled knight.

Mr. Carsen keeps the curtain up for the famous overture, showing Tannhäuser (Peter Seiffert) hard at work painting a naked, reclining Venus. (This is the "Paris" version of the score so the music flows right into the Venusberg ballet. Here, Venus' sex club under a mountain becomes a sort of art school, with frenzied dancers imitating Tannhäuser's movements and creating their own canvases.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Met Opera Reverses Field

Metropolitan Opera Guild-published mag to resume reviewing the Met.
Sunshine, lollipops and rainbows: Opera News will write about the Met!
Image from The Sunday Morning Hangover.
In a move reminiscent of the gyrations of a certain mechanical stage set, the Metropolitan Opera has reversed its decision to crack down on Opera News, the publication put out monthly by the Metropolitan Opera Guild.

The reversal comes following a page one story by Daniel J. Wakin in the New York Times, in which Opera News editor in chief F. Paul Driscoll revealed that the magazine, which has been in business for 76 years, had decided to stop reviewing  performances at the opera house.

Mr. Driscoll's announcement followed complaints from Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb about a review of Götterdämmerung by Fred Cohn and an editorial by ON features editor Brian Kellow chronicling negative audience reactions to recent productions at the Met.

Metropolitan Opera Attacks Opera News

Met Guild publication to cease reviews of Met productions.

(Ed. Note: This story has since been updated, with the Metropolitan Opera issuing a press release stating that Opera News will continue to review its performances. Read more about it here.)

Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb has struck again, this time close to his own opera house.

According to a report by Daniel J. Wakin in the New York Times, Opera News, the 76-year old publication of the Metropolitan Opera Guild, announced today that they will no longer be reviewing Metropolitan Opera productions. The decision comes following the Met's "dissatisfaction" with the magazine's reviews of recent Met shows, most notably its controversial, expensive production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Mahler, Displaced

New York Philharmonic Nixes Ninth.
by Paul Pelkonen
Image from PC World Magazine. Apple, the iPhone and the Apple logo are all © Apple.
The New York Philharmonic announced today that the program for this year's free Memorial Day Concert at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine has been changed.

The new program features a pairing of Debussy's La Mer with Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. Both works were integral parts of recent New York Philharmonic concerts, both at Avery Fisher Hall and during the orchestra's recent tour of California.

These replace a planned performance of Mahler's Symphony No. 9. Music director Alan Gilbert is still scheduled to conduct.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Concert Review: The Chief's Last Dance

The Philadelphia Orchestra at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen
White tie, tails and baton: the conductor Charles Dutoit.
Charles Dutoit's tenure as Chief Conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra was a happy accident, engineered as a result of the abrupt exit of former music director Christoph Eschenbach in 2006. In that time, the veteran Swiss conductor has kept a steady hand on the tiller even as the ensemble has soared through stormy seas and nearly dashed itself to death on the rocks of last year's bankruptcy filing.

On Friday night, Mr. Dutoit brought his final subscription-series program of the season to Carnegie Hall. This is not quite the end of the season for the conductor, but a program that marked the passing of the baton from Mr. Dutoit to the incoming music director, Yannick Nézet-Séguin.

Friday's program played to Mr. Dutoit's strengths, opening with a fizzing account of Mikhail Glinka's overture to the opera Ruslan i Lyudmila. The composer's biggest artistic success was an unlikely blueprint for the Russian operas that followed, combining witty violin writing with Rossini-like accelerando. Mr. Dutoit was animated and in his element, basking in the rich string sound produced by the orchestra.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Concert Review: Seasonal Migrations, Daily Variations

An evening of piano variations at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen
The fierce concentration of Emanuel Ax. Photo © 2011 Newton Classics.
On Thursday night, the pianist Emanuel Ax gave an unusual program at Carnegie Hall, focused exclusively on the art of the piano variation. Mr. Ax chose works by Copland, Haydn, Beethoven and Schumann to look at the idea of theme and variations from different historical perspectives.

The concert opened with Copland's 1930 Piano Variations. Built from a series of dissonant intervaled chords, Copland's composition is a long way from his later, audience-friendly styles. Mr. Ax produced open chords that hung, slab-like in the air, alternating with difficult descending intervals as he explored the unique sound-world of this piece.

The Haydn Variations in F minor were cut from a more genteel cloth, a slow, sad Andante that stands in contrast to this composer's penchant for breezy melody. A second, major-key theme provided contrast, with Mr. Ax navigating the alternating keys with a firm hand and a sense of melodic flow.

Memories of Herbert Breslin

Luciano Pavarotti's longtime manager dies at 87. 
by Paul Pelkonen
Herbert Breslin (right) and friend. Photo by Alan Malschick from The King and I
© 2004 Broadway Books, Herbert Breslin and Anne Midgette.
It is with great sadness that we report the passing of opera super-agent Herbert Breslin. Mr. Breslin managed Luciano Pavarotti for 36 years, elevating the Italian tenor into a household name. He died yesterday in Nice, France, of a heart attack. The news was reported by my colleague Anne Midgette in The Washington Post. 

Mr. Breslin was 87. 

I want to take a moment to say a few words for Mr. Breslin, who helped a young writer beginning a career in the world of opera. Through his firm, the Herbert Breslin Agency, I was able to do my first interviews with singers and gain invaluable experience as I started in this business.

It began when the Metropolitan Opera chose to cancel a 1997 run of Verdi's La Forza del Destino. Luciano Pavarotti was supposed to learn the role of Don Alvaro di Vargas, which would add the last major dramatic Verdi tenor role to a resume that included attempts at Don Carlo and Otello, operas that were far too heavy for his voice.

Obituary: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau

The master of lieder dies at 86.
Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in a publicity still for his
1968 recording of Hindemith's Cardillac.
Image © 1968 Deutsche Grammophon/Universal Classics.
German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau died earlier today. He was 86. According to the Berliner Morgenpost, the Berlin native was in the Bavarian mountains "near Starnberg" when he passed away. The death was announced by his wife of many years, opera singer Julia Varady. 

Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was one of the most important German baritones of the recordings era. His signature achievement was his cycle of Schubert lieder, consisting of over 400 songs. Mr. Fischer-Dieskau's recordings (most made with accompanist Gerald Moore) were instrumental in bringing the lied relevant in the 20th and 21st centuries, allowing listeners to have the experience of a song recital in their own homes.

Although his voice was considered a "light" baritone, Mr. Fischer-Dieskau was a master at driving every syllable of a lyric home, bringing deep, profound meaning to song cycles like Winterreise and Brahms' Four Serious Songs. The singer's signature sound, rich, mellow and pliant in both its upper and lower ranges became one of the most recorded voices of the 20th century. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Karita Mattila Drops the Ball

The Finnish diva cancels Verdi.
by Paul Pelkonen
Before TV and the Internet, this is what we'd sit around and watch when there was no opera.
Wood-burning stove courtesy of Fireplace Village.  
In the sport of baseball, the "hot stove league" is used to describe the sport's off-season, when fans would gather around said heating device in the depths of winter to discuss the personnel changes made by their favorite teams. Now, as the Met opera's off-season is from mid-May to late September (making stoves impractical) maybe we need a new phrase? "Dormant air conditioner?"

The Metropolitan Opera's 2011-2012 has been closed for five days now, and roster changes are already being made, affecting next season's slate of Verdi productions. According to a report on Parterre Box, Finnish soprano Karita Mattila has announced her withdrawal from the company's upcoming David Alden production of Verdi's Un Ballo in Maschera. Ms. Mattila was scheduled to sing Amelia, the love interest of King Gustavo of Sweden (Marcélo Àlvarez).

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

2011-2012 at the Met: The Year of the Snake

Wrapping up the Met Season
Our hero (Jay Hunter Morris) battles Fafner (right) in Act II of Siegfried.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2011 The Metropolitan Opera.
I wrote a lot of stuff this year about the 2011-2012 Metropolitan Opera season. From previews of every production to reviews of almost every show, the big house on W. 64th St. gets a lot of coverage on this blog.

The good news: this year had some exceptional revivals, including Satyagraha, The Makropulos Case and L'Elisir d'Amore.

The bad news: some new productions that ranged from decent (Anna Bolena) to disastrous. (For more on that, keep reading.)

The season's over and it's time to highlight the good and the bad of this season which saw the completion of the Robert Lepage Ring, the launch of several exciting new productions, and two, (count 'em, two!) premieres starring Anna Netrebko. All links will lead to Superconductor reviews of the operas in question.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Superconductor Interview: The Next Swan

We sit down to breakfast with tenor Nicholas Phan. 
Tenor Nicholas Phan will appear in Carmina Burana at the end of this month.
Nicholas Phan is going to be roasted.

It's not 'til the end of the month, when the talented young singer is scheduled to make his debut with the New York Philharmonic. The work: Carmina Burana. The role, that of a swan, who is about to be roasted in the tavern ovens of Carl Orff's medieval-inspired 20th century cantata. The first performance: May 31, under the baton of Rafäel Fruhbeck de Burgos.

A few weeks ago in New York City, Mr. Phan joined Superconductor for breakfast at a café near Lincoln Center. He had just returned from Atlanta where he sang Don Ottavio in Mozart's Don Giovanni. With no roast swans on the breakfast menu, the singer is having granola and yogurt, with a small side of sausage.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Concert Review: Beethoven for Conversation

Steven Isserlis and Robert Levin play the Cello Sonatas
by Paul Pelkonen
Beethoven at his fortepiano. Note the lack of pedals.

Within the vast catalogue of works written by Ludwig van Beethoven, the five Sonatas for Cello and Piano are relatively obscure: chamber pieces written for salon performances and various musicians and patrons the composer encountered in his career.

On Saturday night at the 92nd Street Y, cellist Steven Isserlis and pianist Robert Levin shone light on these lesser-known works. Contributing to the unique nature of these performances was Mr. Levin's choice to play fortepiano, an older style of keyboard instrumet with a shallower wooden frame and no pedals. The instrument, built by Paul McNulty, is modeled after an 1805 fortepiano, a spindly creation that looks more suited to a furniture museum than the concert stage.

The concert opened with a set of variations based on "Bei Mannern," the Act I duet from Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. These were played with engaging warmth as the softer sounds of the fortepiano intersected perfectly with the cello's imitation of the human voice. The variations range from light and playful to slow and serious. Beethoven's interest in the humanist message of the text allowed him to alternate between the solemnity of a humanist message and the playful first interaction between Pamina and Papageno.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Opera Review: Blonde and Dangerous

The Philadelphia Orchestra presents Elektra.
by Paul Pelkonen
She's a lumberjack: Eva Johansson as Elektra.
Photo by Martin Mydskov Rønne © 2006 Zurich Opera.
The presentation of opera in the concert format is at its heart, an artificial process, sometimes marred by the formal dress of concert singers and an uninvolved conductor. However, the Philadelphia Orchestra's first hack at Richard Strauss' opera Elektra proved the opposite. Conductor Charles Dutoit (who is ending his tenure as Philly's chief conductor this month) generated a white-hot intensity that is usually reserved for the opera house.

The performance was anchored by Eva Johannson, a Danish soprano who has run the gamut of German repertory, from Mozart and the lightest Wagner parts to Brunnhilde, Isolde and of course, the heavyweight title role in this opera. Aided by Mr. Dutoit's careful, judicious control of the Philadelphia players, Ms. Johannson found the lyricism in Strauss' elegant vocal lines where other singers simply bring the noise.

Even on the lip of the Verizon Hall stage, Ms. Johannson was an involved actress, using gestures and her eyes to convey torment. The ice melted completely in the Recognition Scene, where Elektra realizes that the mysterious stranger in front of her is her brother Orestes. This scene featured a ghost-like pianissimo that floated above the stave, and an (almost) incestuous longing. In sync with Strauss' kaleidoscopic orchestra, Ms. Johansson changed vocal colors again for the final triumphant dance, demonstrating stamina and beautiful tone in this demanding music.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Concert Review: The Godzilla Concerto

Spring For Music continues, with Marc-Andre Hamelin playing Busoni.
by Paul Pelkonen
If the Busoni concerto were a Japanese movie monster, this is who it would be.
Image of Godzilla (Gojira) © 1954 Toho Studios. Character of Godzilla is the property of Toho Studios.
The Spring For Music festival reached its midway point on Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall. Since the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra travelled the shortest distance to participate in this week of modern music, it was fitting that they chose the toughest program on the schedule: Nocturnal by Edgar Varese, Kurt Weill's obscure Symphony No. 1 (Berliner), and Ferruccio Busoni's gigantic Piano Concerto. The concert was music director Jacques Lacombe's Carnegie Hall debut

Among German composers of the early 20th century, Busoni (a German, despite the Italian name) is looked at as something of an evolutionary dead end, with few followers of his footsteps or much interest in his difficult ideas of a new musical language. With this concert, Mr. Lacombe sought to disprove that thesis: programming the Concerto with works by his students Kurt Weill and Edgar Varèse, composers who took very different musical paths.

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Concert Review: Two Sides of Shostakovich

The Houston Symphony opens Spring for Music.
by Paul Pelkonen
Propaganda poster commemorating the massacre of 1905.
On Monday night, Hans Graf and the Houston Symphony kicked off the 2012 Spring for Music Festival at Carnegie Hall with a pair of pieces by Dmitri Shostakovich. The concert offered contrast between Shostakovich as a satirist who locked scores away in his composing desk and the composer in his "official" capacity, celebrating the unsuccessful revolution of 1905 with his Eleventh Symphony.

The first half of the concert featured the U.S. premiere of Anti-Formalist Rayok, Shostakovich's skewering of the Stalinist practice of bringing in bloated so-called "musicologists" to crack down on hard-working composers. It was Stalin's overreaction to Shostakovich's opera Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk that triggered the artistic purges of the 1930s, forcing Shostakovich to lock his Fourth Symphony in a drawer of his composition table.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

"He Gave Up Being King."

Did you know that Maurice Sendak designed operas?

Maurice Sendak's design for the Cook in
Prokofiev's The Love for Three Oranges.
Image from a Lincoln Center exhib
The world lost beloved children's book author and illustrator Maurice Sendak today, who passed away at the age of 83, the  New York Times reported. The cause was complications from a recent stroke.

Younger readers of this blog may not know that Mr. Sendak's creations regularly came to life for New Yorkers at the New York City Opera, starting in 1981.

In addition to collaborating with composer Oliver Knussen to bring his book Where the Wild Things Are to the operatic stage, Mr. Sendak exercised his talents as an imaginative designer of opera productions in collaboration with director Frank Corsaro. His creations at City Opera included:
  • Ravel's twin one-act operas L'heure Espagnole and L'enfant et les sortilèges.

  • Prokofiev's fantastic The Love for Three Oranges complete with a monstrous puppet Cook.

  • Janacek's The Cunning Little Vixen (premiered in 1981) which did much to make this woodland tale a favorite with New Yorkers.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Concert Review: The Substitute Virtuoso

Louis Lortie in recital at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul Pelkonen
The pianist Louis Lortie. Photo by Elias.
A few weeks ago, Carnegie Hall subscribers were informed that pianist Maurizio Pollini had cancelled his planned New York recitals for this season for "health reasons." This the second year in which the Italian virtuoso had declined to appear on this side of the Atlantic. On Sunday afternoon, those subscribers had the pleasure of hearing Louis Lortie, who offered a program of Beethoven and Chopin in the second of these scheduled concerts.

This Canadian pianist has built a reputation in recent years for clean, imaginative playing. He began the concert with two of the most popular Beethoven Sonatas, the Waldstein and Les Adieux. The first movement of the Waldstein was played with a pell-mell spirit that slowed with the application of rubato in the second theme. Mr. Lortie accelerated again, playing Beethoven's thematic building blocks with a sure touch. The glissando notes came as fast as it was possible to play them without slurring.

In his methodical way, Mr. Lortie brought equal weight to the Waldstein's short second movement, providing melodic expression and making this Adagio more than just a bridge between big ideas. The quick turn into the final Rondo happened almost invisibly, as Mr. Lortie siezed hold of the big, singing theme, playing the repettions of it with rhythmic drive and a warm sense of melody.

Coiled Anticipation: Spring For Music 2012

The festival returns to Carnegie Hall for its second season.
by Paul Pelkonen
Spring for Music. This is not the logo or anything.
Starting Monday night, Carnegie Hall opens its venerated doors to the Spring For Music Festival, six concerts with lesser-known North American orchestras playing a combination of 20th and 21st-century repertory from deep corners of the repertory. 

Sounds exciting?

Did we mention that all tickets for these concerts are dirt cheap at $25?.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Opera Review: Injustice For All

The Metropolitan Opera (briefly) revives Billy Budd.
Ship rocked: Nathan Gunn (center) in the Met's
revival of Billy Budd. Photo by Ken Howard
 © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
On Friday night, the Metropolitan Opera unveiled the final revival of this season: John Dexter's classic 1978 production of Benjamin Britten's Billy Budd. This revival also marked the return of James Morris to a signature role: the evil John Claggart.

Set aboard a British warship in 1797, Billy Budd (based on a novella by Herman Melville) is the story of a young sailor (Nathan Gunn) press-ganged into service aboard the H.M.S. Indomitable during the "French wars." The idealistic young sailor becomes popular among the crew but is targeted for destruction by Claggart, the ship's scheming master-at-arms.

Mr. Gunn embodied energy and fresh, doomed innocence in the title role. He stirred the audience with his entrance "Farewell, O Rights-O-Man," (a paean to his former ship) and brought raw energy to the crew's shenanigans below decks. He was at his most moving in the Act II scene in the ship's brig, where Billy confronts his coming execution and comes to peace with his fate.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Visit from Anton Bruckner

A composer comes to New Jersey...sort of.
I don't make it much of a secret, but I usually sleep with "music in." 
The composer Anton Bruckner at his piano in 1894.
Really, he looked just like this.
As a sleep apnea patient, I use a BiPAP machine (it stands for Bi-directional Positive Air Pressure) which pushes and pulls air in and out of my nose and throat as I sleep. This keeps my airway open and makes sure I get a full night's sleep. I am thus able to stay awake at concerts and work in a normal fashion. 

Each night, I program my iPod and tuck it under my pillow. I block the noise of the "blower" with SkullCandy ear-buds, (yes, that's an endorsement) usually playing Bach or Mozart though I can sleep through Wagner, Bruckner, and even Mahler.

Concert Review: Out of the Darkness

The Philharmonic premieres Magnus Lindberg's Second Piano Concerto.
Piano brawl: Yefim Bronfman does battle with giants.
Photo taken at the Barbican, London © Vienna Philharmonic.
Manhattan concert-goers got a preview of the New York Philharmonic's planned tour program this week, with a set of subscription concerts featuring the world premiere of Magnus Lindberg's Second Piano Concerto. This concert is the last premiere of Mr. Lindberg's three-year term as the orchestra's composer-in-residence.

The somnolent audience for Friday's 11am concert were snapped awake by the opening chords of Dvorak's Carnival Overture. This is a bold splotch of orchestral color that epitomizes this composer's breezy, folk-driven style. Alan Gilbert led the work with energy and rhythmic drive, spotlighting the talented wind and string players.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Opera Preview: Telemann's Orpheus

The City Opera presents a long-lost baroque masterpiece.
by Paul Pelkonen
Don't look back: Orpheus and Eurydice escape from Hades.
There's a reason that you've never heard of Die wunderbare Beständigkeit der Liebe oder Orpheus, (Orpheus for short) Georg Philipp Telemann's operatic retelling of the Greek myth of the master musician and his quest to rescue his beloved Eurydice from the clutches of the underworld.

Then the score was lost.

A complete edition of the opera was found by musicologists in 1978. It reveals Telemann's creation to be one of the first important German operas (although parts of the libretto are also in French and Italian), a vibrant music drama that does not rely on the typical baroque da capo arias found in the operas of Handel and Vivaldi. These four performances by New York City Opera under the baton of Gary Thor Wedow mark the opera's U.S. premiere.

As the City Opera abandoned its Lincoln Center digs last year, the company has been on the road for all of its 2012 season. Following stints at BAM and the Lynch Theater, these shows find them moving to the Upper East Side, specifically to the gorgeous 599-seat Teatro del Museo del Barrio, located at E. 105th and Fifth Avenue at the northeast corner of Central Park.

Recording Recommendation:
Need to whet your appetite for Orpheus? The opera has been recorded twice. The first features the Akademie der Alte Musik from Berlin, conducted by the reliable period performance maverick René Jacobs The set features soprano Dorothea Röschmann.

Concert Review: Serious Moonlight

Evgeny Kissin at Carnegie Hall.
Evgeni Kissin, holding the score of
Scriabin's 24 Preludes.
by Paul Pelkonen
Evgeny Kissin has been a fixture on the international concert scene for the past three decades, ever since the Russian pianist made his debut in the Soviet Union at the age of 12. This season's recital at Carnegie Hall (on Wednesday night) featured the artist's take on familiar sonatas by Beethoven and Chopin, bracketing Samuel Barber's brilliant entry in that genre.

Mr. Kissin opened the concert with a treat for his listeners, the Moonlight Sonata. The opening was played at a glacial speed, with audience members closing their eyes in rapt ecstasy at Beethoven's deceptively simple opening figures. The movement also provided occasion for disapproving murmurs and the occasional acid glare, as listeners chose to express their displeasure at their raptures being disturbed.

Mr. Kissin seemed to show more poetic enthusiasm for the two movements that followed, a lilting dance figure that shows Beethoven at his most light-hearted and the pell-mell finale, taken at a dangerous speed that would be ill-advised for a pianist of lesser gifts. 

If the Moonlight sonata caused raptures in the sold-out house, then Samuel Barber's crystalline, acerbic sonata set the listeners on edge. Barber's piece was two years in its creation, and was premiered in 1949 by Vladimir Horowitz. Although this is a largely tonal sonata, the ideas behind it descent from the Second Viennese School of Schoenberg and Webern. The work opens with an initial tone-row that serves as the seed from which the four movements bloom. 

Mr. Kissin played this challenging work with emotion and dexterity, guiding his audience through the complex dissonant Scherzo and the Adagio mesto, an emotional slow movement. The sonata ended with a complex, contrapuntal fugue. When the interweaving themes resolved themselves back into the opening tone-row, it was a triumphant moment for composer and soloist.

The soloist brought the same serious purpose to the Chopin that followed: the A flat Nocturne and the Sonata No. 3. The Nocturne was lush and sensual, played with warm tonal colors that cast the spell of stillness once more upon the audience. The smaller piece also served as an effective slow introduction to the grand gestures of Chopin's final Sonata. 

Chopin is revered as the composer whose output shattered the traditional classical ideal of the multi-movement work for solo keyboard. However, this last sonata is one of his most traditional and classical in structure, with four broad movements and the audible influence of Johann Sebastian Bach. Mr. Kissin played with a rich flow of notes, leaning on the sustain pedal to create glissando effects up and down the keyboard that dazzled the audience and nearly caused early outbursts of applause.

The encore featured more Chopin (the A minor Mazurka) and a Beethoven rarity: the Six Variations in D Major. This latter piece Beethoven allowed Mr. Kissin to display a vast spectra of pianistic colors, from playful dances to martial figures that stirred. The encore ended with one last playful March, from The Love of Three Oranges by Serge Prokofiev. Not even the powerful unison clapping from the packed house could draw the soloist back for a fourth.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Concert Review: The Death-Blow

The Philharmonic plays Mahler's Sixth at Carnegie Hall.
A 1907 cartoon depicting Mahler with some unusual
instruments featured in the Sixth Symphony.
The caption translates: "Dear God, now that I've forgotten
the horn, I can write a symphony."

On Wednesday night, Alan Gilbert and the New York Philharmonic brought Gustav Mahler's Sixth Symphony to Carnegie Hall. The composer's darkest creation, the Sixth is a mighty, and ultimately futile struggle against the onslaught of inexorable fate.

Mahler composed the Sixth (nicknamed the Tragische) as the central component of a trio of instrumental symphonies. It contains some of the composer's most compelling martial rhythms, with an opening of chugging cellos and the rat-a-tat-tat of the snare drum. That gives way to a second theme in the violins, thought to depict Mahler's relationship with his wife, Alma.

In the first movement, Mr. Gilbert drove the orchestra forward in a steady march. He drew exceptional clarity from the woodwinds, with strong contributions from the flute, clarinet and English horn. (These details of sound are often missed in a faster performance.) In the warm Carnegie acoustic, these players sounded at their very best, with clear differentiation between sections and sonorous playing from the massed brass players.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Opera Review: Formula One

Karita Mattila burns up The Makropulos Case.
Absolutely fabulous: Karita Mattila in The Makropulos Case.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul Pelkonen
Even as the Metropolitan Opera season winds down, there is still room on the schedule between all those performances of the Ring for interesting revivals. Such a one is Elijah Moshinsky's ill-starred 1996 production of Leoš Janáček's The Makropulos Case.

Ms. Mattila brings a unique sensuality and world-weariness to Emilia Marty, the central character of this drama. A deeply philosophical drama wrapped in a mystery wrapped in a legal procedural, this is one of Janáček's most memorable and moving operas. As the 337-year old opera star burnt out from having near-immortality, the Finnish singer was a captivating presence, exercising a mysterious fascination over every character in the opera.

The thorniest moment of Tuesday night's performance (the second of this run) had nothing to do with singing. In Act II, Ms. Mattila was mounting the wooden Sphinx statue that dominates this act (which takes place after-hours on the stage of an opera house.) In high heels and a long poison-green gown, the singer stumbled on the steps. She regained her balance, and  sprawled herself across the Sphinx's lap, nonchalantly taking off her heels and tossing them aside. The rest of the act was (like her Dance of the Seven Veils in Salome) performed barefoot.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

A Blogger Walks the Plank

Met management fights to defend the Ring...from reporters.
Women and bloggers first. Lego® sculpture by Sir Dillon.
Like the whirring, clanking planks that make up the set of its new multi-million dollar production of Wagner's Ring, Metropolitan Opera's general manager Peter Gelb has been spinning in recent weeks. His object: to draw audiences to the company's new production of the Ring Cycle in  following a scathing critique from Alex Ross in the pages of the New Yorker. The latest victim of the hype is WQXR blogger Olivia Giovetti.

Ms. Giovetti is one of the writers of OperaVore, the classical music station's blog covering the ups and downs of our fair city's opera companies. (It's kind of like this blog, without the humor and snappy color scheme.)

The Met general manager objected to Ms. Giovetti's recent post, Three Things We Learned From Peter Gelb Today. That post was then withdrawn from the WQXR website.

Opera Review: Mozart, Occupied

New York Opera Exchange opens a Così on Wall St.
by Paul Pelkonen
Mozart: 18th century anarchist.
Photoshopped by the author.
The New York Opera Exchange is the latest example of a recent surge of small community opera companies that provide a venue for young conservatory singers on the way up. On Sunday evening at the Church of the Covenant, the NYOX offered the fourth and final performance of its first full opera production: Mozart's Così fan tutte.

Director Cameron Marcotte presented a reworked and updated version of this comedy, moving the action to Wall Street, specifically in the year 2011 as the canyons of lower Manhattan echoed with the clatter of percussion and the crunch of police batons. Here, the whole cast become employees of Don Alfonso, whose cynical nature fits his new role as a Wall Street CEO.

In Mr. Marcotte's update. Ferrando (Jeffery Taveras) and Gugliemo (Joseph Beckwith) are would-be masters of the universe, junior analysts at Don Alfonso's corporation. The Don (Jason Cox) sexually harasses Despina and thinks that all of his employees are idiots.

He might be right.

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