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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.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Concert Review: Point-Counterpoint

Taka Kigawa plays Bach at Le Poisson Rouge.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pianist Taka Kigawa is a regular at Le Poisson Rouge.
Photo from the artist's website.
There's something to be said for attending a concert with just your ears.

That was the case at a crowded Le Poisson Rouge on Monday night. The event: pianist Taka Kigawa was the featured artist playing all of Johann Sebastian Bach's The Art of the Fugue. In a crowded club, it wasn't always possible to watch the artist play, which led to one's ability to concentrate on and enjoy this final Bach masterpiece.

Before the review: some explanation:

The Art of the Fugue is one of Bach's last creations. Starting with a simple theme:
the composer embarks on a thorough exploration of counterpoint and thematic development. In the course of the fourteen movements, this theme is subject to the following techniques:
  • augmented: note values lengthened.
  • diminished: note values shortened.
  • inverted: (a low melody trades places with a high one)
  • imitated: (a theme is repeated on lower or higher voices)
  • stretto: ("narrowed") where themes are repeated in an overlapping structure.
Bach's work contains double, triple and quadruple fugues, where the artist is responsible for maintaining many contrasting voices all overlapping. There are also so-called mirror fugues (where the whole piece is played, inverted and then repeated) and the four canons that divide the 14 movements and provide a stylistic calm at the center of a storm of counterpoint.

Monday, August 27, 2012

Concert Review: Beethoven Gets Eighty-Sixed

Mass in C closes Mostly Mozart Festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Clarinetist Martin Fröst did not wear
this hat on Saturday night.
Photo from 

The 2012 Mostly Mozart Festival ended on Saturday night with the second of two concerts featuring the composer's Clarinet Concerto with soloist Martin Fröst. The concerto, Mozart's last instrumental work, was paired with Beethoven's Mass in C Op. 86, one of the composer's least performed works. Festival music director Louis Langrée conducted.

Mozart wrote the Clarinet Concerto for soloist Anton Städler in 1791, the year he died. It features the sum tota of his abilities as a composer of passionate music that both charm and provoke. The work places great demands on the soloist, who must also provide a sweet tone that takes advantage of the clarinet's uncanny ability to imitate the human voice.

The autograph of Mozart's score is not available, but the work may have been based on an earlier work that the composer had planned for the bassett horn, a kind of alto claarinet with a disticnctive "angled" body. Mr. Fröst, who may be the first woodwind superstar in music since Heinz Holliger, played the work on an extended "bassett" clarinet (down to low C) to meet the required low notes.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Opera Review: The Heroine and the Terror

Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble mounts Dialogues des Carmelites.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"So that's how this opera ends?" Jennifer Moore as Sister Blanche in Dialogues des Carmelites.
Photo by Angel Roy
© 2012 Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble
Presenting François Poulenc's 1953 opera Dialogues des Carmélites may seem like an insanely ambitious project for a small New York opera company. On Friday night, Christopher Fecteau's Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble did not just meet the challenges of this work (based on the real-life execution of French nuns during the Reign of Terror) but surpassed it, delivering a raw, potent performance of great clarity and simple faith.

At first glance, Carmélites is the story of Blanche, a shrinking violet born to a French aristocratic family. Clumsy, terrified and unsure of herself, she finds a safe haven in a strict order of Carmelite nuns. Their lives are destroyed by the anti-religious fervor of the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror. Finally, the nuns face the guillotine singing a chorus of Salve Regina, one that is ultimately silenced by the falling blade.

Jennifer Moore (heard in this company's 2010 one-off performance of Königskinder as well as last year's Ariadne auf Naxos) walked Blanche's dramatic arc in Act I, rising from a timid figure into a full-fledged dramatic heroine. She brought acting focus to the role and clarity of tone, highlighted by the simple set and minimal costumes. Poulenc's shimmering, radiant score brought forth the small joys of Blanche's friendship with Sister Constance (the fine soprano Maria Alu) and the stern guidance of the Prioress (Leanne Gonzalez-Singer) The latter's death scene at the end of Act I was wrenching, a foretaste of the dark events to come.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Concert Review: Evolution Calling

Bach and Mendelssohn are featured at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Stephen Hough. Photo by Stanley Fefferman.
When attending a concert at Mostly Mozart consisting of standard repertory works by Johann Sebastian Bach, Felix Mendelssohn and Mozart himself, one can be hard pressed to tease out a connection between abstract classical compositions from different time periods. The challenge becomes greater over the course of a long festival, made more so when one's occupation consists of writing reviews on a classical music blog.

Happily, this week's penultimate Mostly Mozart program (seen Wednesday night) consisted of threee works that made a coherent whole. Conductor Andrew Manze chose Mendelssohn's concert arrangement of Bach's Third Orchestral Suite, the younger composer's own First Piano Concerto (played by Stephen Hough) and a Mozart favorite, the ubiquitous but forward-thinking Jupiter Symphony. The choice of Mozart's last symphony seemed particularly apt, as the Jupiter anticipates at what would become the strange world of 19th century Romanticism.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Concert Review: The King of New York

The [kāj] Ensemble premieres 100 Waltzes for John Cage.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
John Cage in 1986. Photo by Andreas Pohlmann © the photographer.
Too often, the life of a classical music critic involves the same  procedure over and over. We sit in preselected seats, usually in the same section of an opera house or concert hall. The musician(s) are onstage directing sound toward us. And we don't get up except for a quick break for intermission, a gulp of coffee, a friendly chat with a colleague, or a trip to the loo.

The Tuesday night premiere of Kevin James' 100 Waltzes for John Cage broke all of those rules. The 75-minute piece for nine players (Mr. James' group, the [kāj] ensemble) and pre-recorded sounds (played through quadraphonic speakers) proved an active listening experience. Audience members and press alike were invited to walk through and around the performance, experiencing the landscapes of sound from multiple angles.

Mr. James drew inspiration for 100 Waltzes on Cage's own 49 Waltzes for the Five Boroughs, a legendary 1977 work that used a map of New York and calculations from the I Ching to provide players with 147 addresses at which to play, but no indication what they were to do once they got to the randomly chosen location. This new work used random number generation (his assistant was introduced as his "tosser of coins") to pick locations at which to "mine" sounds and preserve them.

Happy Birthday, Claude-Achille Debussy

The father of modern French music turns 150.
Claude-Achille Debussy
Today we're celebrating the sesquicentennial birth of one Claude-Achille Debussy, composer, pianist and artist extraordinaire. And we're also going to talk about the movies.

I had a "Debussy moment" the other day. I was watching a movie I've seen many times, David Fincher's The Game.

(Plot spoilers follow after the jump.)

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Opera Review: Divorce, English Style

Read my review of Henry VIII on The Classical Review.
Catherine of Aragon (left) and her lady-in-waiting (and successor) Anne Boleyn.
The two Queens figure prominently in Saint-Saëns' opera Henry VIII.
Photo manipulation by the author. 
Those of you who read this blog know that my writing sometimes appears on sources other than Superconductor. That said, here's a link to my review of the Camille Saint-Saëns opera  Henry VIII, which closed the 2012 Bard Music Festival in regal fashion on Sunday afternoon.

Here's an excerpt, to whet your...axe.

"The jewels in this performance’s crown were the two queens: soprano Ellie Dehn as Catherine of Aragon and mezzo Jennifer Holloway as Anne Boleyn. Dehn began as an icy presence, but that facade cracked as the reality of her situation became apparent. She achieved dramatic heights in the final act, with a long aria that recalled the plight of another operatic queen in a similar circumstance: Elisabeth de Valois in Verdi's Don Carlos. "

Monday, August 20, 2012

Brass Tacks: Bel Canto

Our series on Opera Styles visits Italy in the early 19th century.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Anna Netrebko's appearance in I puritani at the Met touched off a surge of interest in bel canto style.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2006 The Metropolitan Opera.

Bel canto (the term simply means "beautiful song") refers to an Italian opera style that placed a heavy emphasis on the voice over the music, allowing sopranos and tenors plenty of room for florid display and vocal fireworks. Bel canto operas are usually tragedies--the term for Italian comic opera is opera buffa.

(The opposite of "bel canto" is when singers yell over an orchestra, an approach known to opera wonks as "can belto.")

The bel canto style evolved from the baroque opera seria, and dominated the stages of Italy's opera houses until about 1840. In those years, Italian opera was ruled by three men: Giaochino Rossini, Gaetano Donizetti and Vincenzo Bellini. Rossini and Donizetti wrote both comedies and tragic operas. Bellini wrote only tragedies. It should be noted that there were other important composers in the bel canto style (Cherubini, Spontini, Mercadente, but these are the three whose music remains popular today.)

Arguably the most famous bel canto aria: "Il dolce sono." This is the "Mad Scene" from Donizetti's Lucia di Lammermoor.

Performance by Natalie Dessay © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Opera Review: There's a Riot Goin' On

Downtown Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble occupies Carmen.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A fresh approach to bullfighting at Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's "occupied" Carmen.
Photo amalgamation by the author, who does not endorse bullfighting or pepper spray.
George Bizet's Carmen is often mounted as grand opera, with crowds of milling orange sellers, bandallerias and marching children creating a whirlwind portrait of life in 19th century Seville. This new production by Christopher Fecteau's Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble (part of the company's summer repertory project) takes the opposite approach.

Using the confines of the black-box 13th St. Theater to maximum advantage, director Knud Adams added elements all too familiar to New Yorkers conversant with the Occupy Wall Street protests. Citizens were repeatedly "kettled" and threatened with pepper spray.  Don José (Adam Juran) was a riot control cop with safety vest and ready baton. Carmen (Elizabeth Shoup) was a lithesome leather-jacketed presence with an attitude to match, surrounded by an admiring throng of police, punks and riot grrls.

Dell'Arte's summer Standard Repertoire Project is geared toward helping younger singers move from the conservatory environment into the professional world. This was Ms. Shoup's debut in the complex title role, and she brought a dry, matter-of-fact edge to this familiar character. Although her singing was strongest in the two famous arias in Act I, she compensated with go-to-hell attitude and a refreshing lack of the standard clichés associated with this famous character.

Friday, August 17, 2012

Concert Review: Romantic Living

Osmo Vänskä conducts at Mostly Mozart. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist Rudolf Buchbinder. Photo by Marco Borggreve.
In recent decades, the Finnish conductor Osmo Vänskä has earned a deserved reputation as a classicist. His specialty: crisp, reliable readings of repertory standards, presented in a refreshing manner that always respects the written score.

On Wednesday night at Mostly Mozart, Mr. Vänskä turned his cerebral approach to works by Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert. This was a performance that reflected the classical spirit of the festival but pointed the way forward to the 19th century and the birth of the Romantic movement.

The program opened with Mozart's Symphony No. 32, a single movement in four parts that may have been intended as a curtain-raiser the unfinished opera Zaide. Under Mr. Vänskä's hand, the value of this underrated gem shone forth clearly. He drew a clean, clear texture from the strings, a warm tone from the woodwinds and enthusiastic, noble solos from the horns who are asked to masquerade as other instruments in this particular score.

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Otello

Johan Botha and Renée Fleming return in this anticipated revival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A formidable general: Johan Botha as Otello.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2009 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Met continues its 2012 celebration of Giuseppe Verdi's 200th birthday (which isn't until October 10, 2013) with this revival of Otello. The fall performances reunite South African heavyweight tenor Johan Botha with the glamorous Renée Fleming as the jealous Moorish general and his wife: desperately in need of couples counselling. Falk Struckmann is an oily, Germanic Iago. Semyon Bychkov, who led this opera at the Met in 2010 with the same cast conducts the fall performanc

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Brass Tacks: Basses

How low can they go? (The answer is, usually a low "D.")
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Matti Salminen as Hagen in Götterdämmerung at the Savonlinna Festival.
Photograph by Stefan Bremer © 2011 Savonlinna Festival.

This is the last section of Brass Tacks dealing with voice types. And I've saved my favorites for the very end.

Basses are the lowest of the six major voice types, and exclusively male. A great bass will be able to sing in his normal range and then move his tone production deep down into the chest (this is called the "break") to deliver room-shaking low notes. A full "black bass" must be able to bellow over the orchestra, in scenes like the Calling of the Gibichung Vassals from Act II of Götterdämmerung.

Most operas have parts for basses, who get to play devils, priests, and the most villainous of villains. The hardest roles in the bass repertory (mostly because they're very long) are the title role in Boris Godunov and the father-and-son villains Alberich and Hagen in Wagner's Ring Cycle.

There is some cross-over from the baritone range, particularly in bass-baritones, the voice type that is frequently a bass who can push up into the baritone range for certain passages. Examples of this include Wotan in Wagner's Ring although the part in Das Rheingold has been sung by a full baritone,and John Tomlinson, a full bass, sang all three Wotan roles at Bayreuth in the 1990s.

Let's start with a great example of bass singing: Martti Talvela as Osmin in Mozart's Die Entführung aus dem Serail. This aria, "Ha! Wie Will Ich Triumphieren!" requires a low D.
Footage © 1978 Bayerische Staatsoper. 

And here's a rare duet for two basses as King Philip (Ferruccio Furlanetto) confronts the Grand Inquisitor (Matti Salminen) in Act IV of Don Carlo.
Footage © 1980 Salzburg Festival/Sony Classical.

"Migration" between bass voices is usually a one-way street--a Dr. Bartolo is highly unlikely to sing Hagen in Götterdämmerung although sometimes deep bass voices go "up" to sing comic villains.
The range for a bass voice is the C two octaves below middle C to the F above middle C (C to f'). A bass-baritone  The lowest note required for a bass is Osmin's low D2 in Die Entführung aus dem Serail.

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Superconductor Interview: David Greilsammer

The fiery pianist talks about recitals, Mozart and his new disc Baroque Conversations.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Firebrand: The pianist David Greilsammer. Photo © Sony Classical.
It's not every day that a pianist shakes up the very idea of the piano recital, the 150-year old institution established by Franz Liszt as a means of bringing music for that instrument before the general public. But David Greilsammer, the Israel-born soloist who made his Mostly Mozart debut on Tuesday night, does just that on his new Sony Classical disc Baroque Conversations. 

"I do believe that in the 21st century, a recital program should have a greater purpose," he says in a telephone interview. "Historically, the recital program has come to a end. It is important to visit the great masterpieces in a new way--one that is not necessarily a new interpretation but bringing together music from different worlds. Having them say wha they have to say is magic--there is always conversation and dialogue being created."

The dialogues on Baroque Conversations bring together some unlikely combinations. The arch elegance and perfect structure of Jean-Philippe Rameau rubs shoulders with the burly minimalism of Morton Feldman. Familiar baroque composers like Couperin and Handel flank Whaam!" a bold, jazzy creation by Matan Porat inspired by the pop art of Roy Lichtenstein. Yet the disc maintains a convincing narrative flow, 64 minutes of dialogue that spans the centuries.

Brass Tacks: Baroque Opera and Opera Seria

Opera before the revolution.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A typical over-the top baroque extravaganza. This is a scene from Handel's Xerxes.

"Baroque opera" is a catch-all term used for "early" operas, written before 1754. Opera seria is a name for an Italian opera style that dominated music in Italy and elsewhere for 150 years and has enjoyed a revival on the modern operatic stage. The French equivalent is tragédie en musique, a form that has been around since 1673.

First, some history.

The first opera was Dafne, written by Jacopo Peri in 1597 for the Venetian Carnival season. The score is now lost. The earliest examples available to us are operas by Claudio Monteverdi, whose L'Orfeo, L'Incoronazione di Poppea and Il ritorno di Ulisse in Patria are all performed today.

The preferred subject matter for this new art form was mythological or historical in nature. When real life events were portrayed (a trend started by Monteverdi with Poppea) they were set far enough back in antiquity that no-one would possibly be offended.

Here's an example from L'Incoronazione di Poppea by Claudio Monteverdi, written in 1642.

Performance by Rachel Yakar with the Ensemble Zurich cond. Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Brass Tacks: Baritones

The "middle" of the male voice.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Verdi's Falstaff is a pinnacle of the baritone repertory. Here, Ambrogio Maestri has a pint.
Photo © 2011 Bayerische Staatsoper.
We're in the home-stretch of our Brass Tacks survey of the different types of opera singers. Today, we're talking about baritones: the "middle" of the male voice.

Although the baritone is one of the most versatile vocal types, composers did not begin creatingimportant works for it until the end of the baroque era. Mozart and Rossini led the innovation, bringing Beaumarchais' Figaro plays to the operatic stage in Le Nozze di Figaro and Il Barbiere di Siviglia.

Baritones are important to operas both as soloists...

Simon Keenlyside as Papageno in Die Zauberflöte.
Footage © 2003 Royal Opera House of Covent Garden

And in support of higher voices in duets and larger ensembles:

Dwayne Croft and Rolando Villazon in a scene from Don Carlo. 
Footage  © 2007 The Netherlands Opera

In 1850, Verdi's Rigoletto elevated the game yet again, making Victor Hugo's hunchbacked jester into a figure of towering dramatic stature. Later operas like Il Trovatore, Simon Boccanegra and Un Ballo in Maschera featured baritone villains that are as memorable as the tenor parts.

The 19th century also saw the evolution of the "bass-baritone." These singers are featured in most of the operas of Wagner. They can either be a baritone who can extend his range downward,  or more frequently a high bass with an exceptional lyric range.
The typical range for a baritone is from a low A below "low C" to a G# above middle C. A bass-baritone may be able to extend their range down to a low D, but voices vary.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Lockout Looms at Atlanta Symphony Orchestra

Musicians, management throw down over budget cuts.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Labor issues are heating up in Atlanta.
Image from Gone With the Wind © 1939 MGM.
The plague of cutbacks and labor unrest that has visited orchestras across North America has now made its way south. At the Woodruff Center for the Arts in Atlanta, GA, an ugly confrontation is brewing between the Board of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the musicians of that ensemble.

In an August 9 letter to the Board of Directors of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, members of the orchestra's Players' Association outline a proposed 26% cut in total musicians' expenses, a pay cut of $20,000 per musician, and a reduction in orchestra size from 95 members to 89.

The letter furthermore delineates the Board's threat to "lock out the orchestra and cancel our health and dental insurance" if the above conditions are not agreed to. It is added that the Board's decision comes in conjunction with the decision to start the 2012-2013 season in October, (which is apparently weeks later than usual), after the expiration of the players' current contract.

Concert Review: Funeral for a Friend

Lutoslawski, Bartók and um...Mozart at Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pensive Jean-Efflam Bavouzet. Photo © 2012 Paul Mitchell for the BBC Proms.
On Friday night, the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra played one of its more interesting programs of the 2012 schedule, placing Mozart's Symphony No. 39 in conjunction with two closely related 20th century works, the Musique funèbre by Witold Lutoslawski and the Third Piano Concerto by Béla Bartók.

These two modern works are connected by death. Bartók wrote the Third at the very end of his life, as a birthday present for his wife. He did not live to orchestrate the last 17 bars. Lutoslawski's four-movement work for divided string orchestra is a musical gravestone for the Hungarian composer, a moving portrayal etched in broad ink-strokes.

The Musique funèbre is a good example of what can be done using serial technique. The compostion is built from tone-rows, unconventional arrangements of notes that bear no relationship to the standard ascents and descents of the scale. Mr, Langrée unlocked the potent ideas in each of these small movements, bringing the work to its powerful apogee before dwindling to nothingness on the note where the composition originally started.

The 2012-2013 Superconductor Metropolitan Opera Preview

Yes, it's that time of the year again. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Joyce DiDonato prepares to mount the scaffold as Mary, Queen of Scots in Maria Stuarda,
opening at the Met Dec. 31. Image © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
A lecherous Italian duke sets his sights on Las Vegas.

An English queen gets ready to die--again.

An opera house stage overflows with blood.

Anna Netrebko's face is appearing on the New York subways more frequently than Doctor Jonathan Zizmor's.

All this means one thing: the Metropolitan Opera season for 2012-2013 is on sale to the general public. This is the company's first season in four decades without music director James Levine, who is taking a year (and possibly more) of convalescent leave as he recuperates from various unknown injuries and ailments.

This season the Met is celebrating the legacies of Giuseppe Verdi and Richard Wagner, composers who celebrate their 200th birthdays in 2013. (If you're wondering, Verdi's is October 10, 2013. Wagner's is May 22, and both dates fall outside the Met's coming season.) In any case, the company is offering seven Verdi operas and five Wagner music dramas, making up almost half of the schedule for the coming year.

Starting with L'Elisir d'Amore, and ending with Les Dialogues de Carmelites,  regular readers (and subscribers) of this blog will receive a new preview article, one for each of the next 28 days. They will appear in the main blog feed, and will also be linked below. (It's my job, as BlogMaster, to turn the links on each day and I will endeavour to be responsible about doing so.) The Previews will of course alternate with our usual mix of opera, concert and CD reviews, saucy commentary and news items as they develop, and will re-appear on the site in the course of the season as needed.

Please note that the previews below are subject to casting changes and will be updated (to the best of my ability) in the course of the 2012-2013 season.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Brass Tacks: Tenors

Our series continues with the ringing power of the high male voice. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Prize singer: Klaus Florian Vogt is one of the finest heroic tenors working today.
Image from Act III of the DVD of Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
© 2008 Opus Arte/Bayreuth Festspiele.
The tenor voice is a cornerstone of opera, from the dizzying heights scaled by Rossini's comic heroes to the full-on sword-forging blast of Wagner's Siegfried. Depending on the composer and libretto, they can be either hero or villain, callow youth or grizzled warrior. The possibilities are endless.

Tenors have the unenviable task of singing difficult high music, pulling off feats of vocal stamina and dexterity that make them among the most revered (and sometimes the most despised) opera singers. (They also show up frequently in rock and roll, where some noted tenors include Rob Halford from Judas Priest, Bruce Dickinson from Iron Maiden and the late Freddie Mercury.) From the six-hour marathons of Wagners operas to the stunning "Ah, mes amis" by Donizetti (which requires nine high Cs in a row!) the life of a star tenor is never easy.

Let's start with an example of really fine tenor singing:

Jonas Kaufmann sings In Fernem Land from Act III of Wagner's Lohengrin
Footage from the Bayerische Staatsoper © 2009 Decca/Universal Classics.

The rewards can be worth it. Most of the famous male opera singers, (the ones that you've heard of even if you've never been to the opera) are tenors. Enrico Caruso. Lauritz Melchior. Richard Tucker. In the '80s and '90s, the operatic world was dominated by the Three Tenors: Plácido Domingo, José Carreras and the late Luciano Pavarotti. Today, the torch is carried by a modern generation of star tenors: Klaus Florian Vogt, Jonas Kaufmann, Juan Diego Flórez and Roberto Alagna.
Tenors come in many shapes, sizes and styles, but all have in common a range from the B above "low" C to the C one octave above "middle" C. Tenors are measured on a loose scale of "heaviness" with the largest, and most demanding parts referred to as the "heavier" roles. Despite the girth of some singers, it has nothing to do with body weight.

Concert Review: Remastering the Romantics

Pablo Heras-Casado conducts the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pablo Heras-Casado demonstrates his ninja podium technique.
Photo by Jean-François Leclerq © 2011
Thursday night's concert at Mostly Mozart built a bridge between the instruments of the 18th century and the early Romanticism of the 19th. Under the baton of Pablo Heras-Casado, the Freiburg Baroque Orchestra offered a program of Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn--conventional composers given new life through the use of period instruments.

The Freiburg Baroque Orchestra is celebrating its silver anniversary this year. Founded by music students in this university town near the Black Forest, this group's choice of archaic instruments seems somehow in keeping with the medieval, cobbled streets of their home city. Wooden flutes, natural horns, and a crisp, refreshing approach to music by Schubert, Schumann and Mendelssohn made for an entertaining addition to the usual Mostly Mozart schedule.

The program opened with Schubert's light-hearted Third Symphony. The characteristic orchestrations and long melodic lines that characterize this composer sounded fresh and new played by the Freiburgers, as if thick coatings of linseed oil were suddenly scraped from a masterwork of art. The music sprang with robust, Romantic life, from the slow, thoughtful introduction to the forceful Allegro with its complex clarinet part.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Brass Tacks: Historically Informed Performance

So what do they mean by "original instruments?"
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Natural horns (with replaceable "crooks" instead of valves)
are a key part of  historically informed performance.
The creation and composition of what we call "classical" music has gone on for half a millennium. In that time, both the music and the instruments it is played on have changed considerably. Iron-framed concert grand pianos, valved trumpets, metal flutes--all of these are comparitively recent inventions.

In 1954, a movement began in Europe encouraging the exploration and performance of Bach cantatas on "historically informed" instruments: that is, original or replica instruments of the 18th century and earlier. The idea was to recreate the sound of a a given piece of music at the time that it was written. The success of these initial Bach performances led to a whole slew of new baroque-style orchestras being formed.

It was the era of the big classical music label. Many of these new ensembles were given recording contracts, and the world soon saw an explosion of interest in baroque and Renaissance music. A handful of ittle known musicians: Nikolaus Harnoncourt, John Eliot Gardiner, Christopher Hogwood, Roger Norrington and William Christie became star conductors.

"Historically Informed Performance" (as it has come to be called) incorporates so-called "original" instruments. Wooden flutes replace metal ones. Oboes and bassoons have simplified key mechanisms. Keyboard soloists favor wood-framed, sometimes pedal-less "fortepianos" instead of the modern concert grand.

Thursday, August 9, 2012

Brass Tacks: Mezzo-Sopranos and Altos

Discussing the female voices that are lower than the soprano.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Mezzo extrem: Susan Graham in the title role of Handel's Ariodante.
Mezzo-sopranosoften play travesti ("trouser") roles in opera.
Photo by Terrence McCarthy, © Santa Fe Opera Festival.
Our series on voices and continues as we talk about mezzo-sopranos and contraltos (or altos), the lower ranges of the female voice. As usual, there are nice clips to go with the discussion.

It is a common misconception about opera that all works in the genre are written with a soprano in mind as the leading lady. Many composers (especially in French and Italian opera) wrote their works around the duskier sounds of the mezzo-soprano, a rich, chocolatey tone that may not soar to the same heights but can convey maturity, maternity, and above all, sexuality to the listener.

Carmen is written for a mezzo-soprano. So is Dalila. So is Verdi's Eboli in Don Carlo. All are great seductresses. Berlioz (another great French composer) was a big fan of this voice, writing mezzo parts for Didon (in Les Troyens) and Marguerite in La Damnation de Faust.

Mezzo-sopranos also play crucial travesti parts in operas: the title role in Handel's Serse for example.  Richard Strauss, who loved the sound of a mezzo voice singing with the soprano, created some memorable "male" roles: two famous examples are the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos and one of the greatest roles ever written for the range, Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier.
The typical mezzo voice ranges from the G below middle C (the center of the piano keyboard) to the B two octaves above. Some mezzo-sopranos can sing a high C. (These are usually former sopranos trained to the note who take advantage of being able to span both ranges.) There is a wide variety of voices and a wide variety of roles--from the saucy heroines of Rossini operas to Wagner's own embodiment of Mother Earth.

The Ghost of Conductors Past

James Levine may cancel 2013-2014 performances at the Met.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The presence of conductor James Levine is fading from the Metropolitan Opera House.
Reports out of the Metropolitan Opera House  indicate more cancellations for James Levine.

Subscribers to the Metropolitan Opera's 2012-2013 season are already too aware that this is the company's first season in four decades without the presence of music director James Levine. But they may have to wait even longer to see the acclaimed conductor back at work.

An item in today's edition of parterre box indicates that the Metropolitan Opera has abandoned plans to revive Wagner's Parsifal and Tannhäuser next season. According to parterre's anonymous source, the likely replacements for these two works would be a revival of Antonín Dvořák's Rusalka and Alban Berg's Wozzeck.  

These two Wagner revivals were specifically tailored to the talents of Mr. Levine, a dedicated Wagnerian who has conducted these operas many times in his career. Parsifal, Wagner's final opera, is considered to be one of his specialties, a work he has recorded on three seperate occasions.

Brass Tacks: The Concerto

The Eternal Struggle of Soloist vs. Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sergei Rachmaninoff at the piano.
Acclaimed as a composer and pianist, he wrote four piano concertos.
In today's installment we're going to talk about forms again--specifically the concerto, one of the most popular types of concert music. Concertos are a standard feature of most orchestral programs, appearing second after an overture and before the symphony.

Some concertos have the soloist enter first. Others have the orchestra lead off. This can change from movement to movement, with the soloist and conductor "taking turns."

Concertos usually have three movements: a fast Sonata allegro, a slow central Adagio and a Presto finale. The music generally observes sonata form, eliminating the dance movement found in most symphonies. 

The three movements usually have passages (cadenzas) where the orchestra stops entirely and allows the solo player to either play a pre-written solo or add one of their own creation. These are usually placed between the different sections of the sonata, for example between the development and the recapitulation.
Here's a helpful diagram courtesy of our friends at Wikipedia.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Brass Tacks: Sopranos

Part I of a Superconductor series on Voice Types.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
La Divina: The great Maria Callas. Photo © EMI Classics.

If I were teaching a basic class on the appreciation of opera, I might start with the different types of voices and singers. So we're starting a series on voice types, complete with entertaining musical examples. If you already know this information, you're still likely to enjoy the music!

Let's take it from top--literally.

Sopranos are (usually) female singers whose range runs two octaves (and possibly more). (Male sopranos are sometimes heard in choral music, but are commonly replaced by countertenors or even boy trebles.) Composers from another era wrote for the castrati (boy singers who were mutilated before puberty to preserve their voices) but we're not even going to go there right now.
The soprano range from Middle C to High F.
The (usual) low note for a soprano is "middle" C (the center of the piano keyboard) although some operas can call for a middle A♭. The high note is another C, two octaves above middle C. Some composers ask for higher notes--all the way up to the series of high Fs that Mozart wrote into "Die hölle rache", a famous aria from Die Zauberflöte.

Brass Tacks: The Symphony and Sonata Form

“Faerie’s Aire and Death Waltz"
(from ‘A Tribute to Zdenko G. Fibich’) by John Stump.
© the composer.
Sonata Allegro and other mysteries.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The other night, a friend said to me: "I love your writing but a lot of what you write about goes whoosh right over my head. So I thought I'd address that with some articles talking about basic musical structure and compositional techniques. Maybe they'll make the reviews make more sense and the whole site be more entertaining. Hope you like it.

Working as a music writer one spends a lot of time grappling with words like Adagio, Allegro and Scherzo. These terms are usually used as the abstract titles of movements of large-scale pieces of classical music, usually symphonies or concertos.

With that in mind, here's a short fast guide to the shape of a symphony, and some of the tempos and modifiers that you encounter in the course of listening to a piece. (These forms can also apply to works like three-movement sonatas and concertos, but we'll get to that later.

I'm going to use the Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G Minor as an example, because it follows form fairly closely and just about everybody knows it.

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Evgeny Nikitin takes on...KISS?

Tattooed opera singer blasts American rockers in Der Spiegel.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Bassist Gene Simmons (left) of American rockers Kiss,
 and bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin. Yes, this is PhotoShop by the author.
(Actually, it was done in OS X Preview, we're on a budget here.)
In the latest (and hopefully the last) round of the Summer Scandal that Refuses to Die, Russian bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin has launched an attack against American rock band Kiss.

The singer, who lost his job earlier this summer singing the role of the Dutchman in the Bayreuth Festival's new production of Wagner's Die Fliegende Höllander left Bayreuth after questions emerged about a controversial tattoo on his chest that, in an earlier iteration, depicted a swastika.

The American rock band came up when Mr. Nikitin, who is scheduled to appear at the Metropolitan Opera next February as Klingsor in the company's new production of Wagner's Parsifal defended his actions and his skin decorations in an interview with German newspaper Der Spiegel.

Waiting For the World to End

A Superconductor Editorial.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The final conflagration at the end of the Met's new Ring Cycle.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The Metropolitan Opera has announced the release date for its DVD and Blu-Ray sets of the company's Robert Lepage production of Der Ring des Nibelungen:

September 11, 2012.

The sets, which are re-packagings of the Met's Live in HD performances of Das Rheingold, Die Walküre, Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, are scheduled for general release on the 11th anniversary of attacks on New York and Washington, DC that destroyed the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The Best Opera Productions I've Ever Seen: Die Frau ohne Schatten

Metropolitan Opera House, Nov. 18, 1989
by Paul J. Pelkonen
"Er wird zu stein!" James King as the Emperor in Act III of Die Frau ohne Schatten
Photo from the Met Archives, taken by Frank Dunand © 1978 Opera News/The Metropolitan Opera. 
This summer marks 30 years of opera for me. My first was Turandot at the New York City Opera, in the summer of 1982. And since then I've seen hundreds of operas.

Add to that the operas I've seen on home video and DVD and you have an enormous list. So in the interests of fun (and because I'm recovering from illness and missed yesterday's shows at Mostly Mozart) here's a new feature for Superconductor: a look at some of my favorite opera productions that I've seen in my three decades sitting in the dark.

These aren't necessarily reviews--more like reminiscence. Some of them I saw live, others, only on video. So please bear with--it's an attempt to loosen up the format of the blog and give myself something fresh to write about.

Die Frau ohne Schatten ("The Woman Without a Shadow") was the second opera I saw at the Metropolitan Opera House (my first was Aida with Plácido Domingo and Aprile Millo). It was the start of a long (and still ongoing) love affair with the operas of Richard Strauss.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Concert Review: Trouble is his Business

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Beethoven and Haydn at Mostly Mozart
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Trouble shooter: Yannick Nézet-Séguin.
Photo by Marco Borggreve © 2012 YannickNézet-Sé
Fresh off his Thursday night triumph with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin turned to the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra to lead Haydn's "Nelson" Mass and another Beethoven symphony--in this case the Second.

Although Haydn an Beethoven knew each other and follow each other in the historical procession of great Vienna-based composers, these two works could be tied together by their common origin in a Europe beset by crisis and war. Beethoven's Symphony No. 2 (written in 1801) is filled with revolutionary spirit, an optimistic, yet dramatic pinnacle of Beethoven's early style. The Mass is much darker, the sound of Austro-Hungarian aristocracy fretting in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars.

Working with the larger Festival Orchestra, Mr. Nézet-Séguin led a Second Symphony that bristled with energy and good humor. After an appropriately slow, dramatic buildup, the rapid-fire main theme of the opening movement leapt out of the starting gate, driven hard by the young conductor. The slower second movement went at a fairly brisk pace, with lovely textures from the bassoons and horns.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Concert Review: The Gifts of Prometheus

Yannick Nézet-Séguin brings Beethoven to Mostly Mozart.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin. Photo by Chris Alonso.
On Thursday night, the Chamber Orchestra of Europe gave the first of two Mostly Mozart concerts this year under the baton of Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The fiery young Québécois (who is about to start his first season as Music Director of the Philadelphia Orchestra) led energetic accounts of two Beethoven war-horses: the Violin Concerto (with soloist Lisa Biatishvili) and the Eroica Symphony.

Both pieces (staged on the modest, acoustically crisp stage of Alice Tully Hall) were exceptionally well played by this fine London ensemble, which recorded the complete symphonies 20 years ago under period specialist Nikolaus Harnoncourt. The modest orchestra has some instrumental quirks: small copper-kettle timpanis and a penchant for slide trumpets. This was epic Beethoven: a performance that attendees can annoy their friends (by bragging about) it a decade from now.

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Concert Review: Genius of Love

Mostly Mozart's 2012 opening features starry special guests.
Mostly Mozart opens with an appearance
by tenor Lawrence Brownlee.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

The Mostly Mozart Festival is Lincoln Center's oldest summer event, bringing patrons into the cool confines of Avery Fisher Hall since 1966. This year's kickoff concert attempted to recreate the feel of an old-fashioned Viennese concert program, where listeners might hear a smorgasbord of musical styles: opera arias and overtures, a symphony and maybe a concerto, presented in whatever order seemed most entertaining and sensible.

The August 1 concert began at the end of Mozart's oeuvre with the overture to La Clemenza di Tito, his hastily written opera seria dashed off to accompany the coronation of Austrian emperor Leopold II. Louis Langrée, who is beginning his tenth year as the Festival's music director, led a robust performance of this underrated work. The overture featured rich brass playing and brisk, energetic strings from the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra.

The Piano Concerto No. 20 was next. Brazilian pianist Nelson Freire took the solo part in this, one of Mozart's most Romantic creations for keyboard and orchestra. Whereas most piano concertos of this period have soloist and conductor working in harmonious accord, Mozart's work places the lone instrument in opposition to stormy chords from the orchestra. Mr. Freire engaged in friendly combat with Mr. Langrée, soloing with liquid grace against the accompaniment, which is similar in style and tone to certain pages of Don Giovanni.

Ink-a Dinka Doo

Controversy continues over Evgeny Nikitin's tattoo.
Evgeny Nikitin: the completed, controversial tattoo is to the left of his chin.
The new Bayreuth production of Der Fliegende Holländer is open but the story of Russian bass Evegny Nikitin and his unfortunate choice of tattoo art refuses to die.

The Wagner festival made July headlines in Germany when bass Evgeny Nikitin made a hasty exit after it was revealed that the singer's chest tattoo, an elaborate black heraldic crest, was an attempt to cover up a large swastika.

Mr. Nikitin issued a press statement and was replaced by Korean bass Samuel Youn in the title role of The Flying Dutchman. However, since the Russian singer engaged to sing Klingsor in the Metropolitan Opera's new production of Wagner's final opera Parsifal, the tattoo story refuses to die.

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