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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.

Monday, December 31, 2012

Cataclysmic Concerts: The Best of 2012

The year in concerts, recitals and chamber music.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Some say the world will end with fire. But this didn't actually happen either.
Image from The Day After Tomorrow © 2004 Centropolis Entertainment/20th Century Fox. 
With the exception of a certain often-mentioned iPhone alarm (that disrupted a Jan. 11 concert by the New York Philharmonic) there weren't too many in-concert disasters in 2012.  Or maybe I spent the whole year going to the wrong performances?

Here is a "dozen sampler" of shows that stood out in 2012, from avant-garde chamber works to a unique walk in a freezing cold garden of song. This is  part of our ongoing Year in Reviews series here on Superconductor. 

Berlin Philharmonic: The "completed" Bruckner Ninth at Carnegie Hall.
"The questions asked by the descending opening theme of the first movement are answered by a dissonant, raging theme from the trumpets and horns. The whole is expressed in a gigantic double fugue over a thick texture of strings. Sir Simon Ratle and his orchestra poured themselves into this music."

San Francisco Symphony: American Mavericks
"Michael Tilson Thomas chopped fruits and vegetables, preparing a smoothie with the blender. He added a banana, and tasted it again. Eventually, he added some blocks and stones to the piano, playing tonal clusters on the strings. (Later, another musician tried the smoothie.)"

aron quartett at the Austrian Cultural Forum
"The aron quartett played the four movements with grit and earnest, with long melodic lines that unfolded from instrument to instrument. Plucked, scraped notes alternated with winding themes tossed from player to player in a performance that made a good case for more New York performances of Erich Zeisl's catalogue."

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Opera-pocalypse! The Best of 2012

The Twelve Best Operas Performances of 2012.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
No this didn't actually happen this year. (The Mayans were wrong!)
 Framegrab from Armageddon © 1998 The Walt Disney Company/Touchstone Entertainment.
I saw a total of sixty-five operas in 2012 (sixty-six if I snag a ticket for Maria Stuarda on Monday night.) Here's the twelve best opera performances (overall) for the year that was supposed to end with us being hit by a flaming pyramid two weeks ago.

Anyway here's the best operas I saw this year. Rough chronological order.

Ernani at the Metropolitan Opera.
"Angela Meade brought her admirable instrument to the part, meeting the challenging high-and-low notes of the opening "Ernani, inviolame" and  the fiery duets and trios that form the backbone of this score."

The Ghosts of Versailles at Manhattan School of Music
"One of the joys of Mr. Corigliano's opera is seeing Beaumarchais bring his beloved characters back to life for one more romp. Figaro is older in this opera-within-an-opera, played here with energy and a rich low end by American baritone Nickoli Strommer. "

Notre Dame with the American Symphony Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
"Stephen Powell walked a fine line between piety and desparation, using his potent baritone in the prison scene to convincingly portray the deacon's capricious, ambivalent attitude toward Esmerelda."

Salome with the Cleveland Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
"Nina Stemme didn't just sing--she embodied the title role, meeting the opera's exacting requirements with a huge instrument that proved capable of soaring heights and spine-tingling lows. This was the heroic soprano voice that New Yorkers have been starving for: real singing, thrillingly delivered with no compression or spreading above or below the stave."

¡Ay Marimba! The Worst of 2012

At least the Mayans were wrong.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The end of the world, Mayan-style....
Although there was no Mayan apocalypse, 2012 had its share of catastrophes on and off the stage in the world of classical music and opera. Here's our annual look at bad performances, worse managerial decisions, and the aftermath of one significant natural disaster.

2012 will forever be remembered around the Superconductor offices as the Year of the Ring Tone. It was on January 11th when a New York Philharmonic audience member had the alarm on his iPhone start playing the "Marimba" ring tone in the fourth movement of Gustav Mahler's Ninth Symphony. That story went viral, and might be one reason you are here reading this list of the worst things about the last year in classical music. (We'll get to the happier stuff in the next few posts.)

Let's start with the Metropolitan Opera.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Opera Review: A Short Scissor Cut

The Met's trimmed-down Barber of Seville.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

"He that breaks a thing to find out what it is has left the path of wisdom."--J. R. R. Tolkien
Opera is a drag! The cast (l.r.: Rodion Pogossov, Alek Shrader, Isabel Leonard, John del Carlo) in Act II of
Rossini's The Barber of Seville. Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
In 1969, the Italian musicologist Alberto Zedda stewarded a critical edition of Rossini's 1816 masterpiece, The Barber of Seville. This edition clarified and codified the composer's original intentions, putting lost arias back in their right and proper place and ensuring the future of this beloved comic opera for years to come.

Given the Metropolitan Opera's penchant for textual accuracy under the reign of music director James Levine, it was surprising that the company chose Barber as this year's "family-friendly" holiday presentation.  This new edition of the score (by J. D. McClatchy) translates the show into English and cuts it by an hour. The cuts are occasionally seamless, but more often brutal.

Mr. McClatchy axes two-thirds of the famous Overture and halves most of the arias, omitting repeats or having singers start numbers at the cabaletta. Gone: Don Basilio's bass aria "La calunnia", Berta's "Il vecchioto" and whole chunks of Figaro's "Largo al factotum." Musically speaking, the effect is like a skilled amputation--you're not supposed to look too closely. The translation of Cesare Sterbini's original text is generally well done and sing-able, although the patter songs are awkward.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Opera Review: Troy, Troy Again

Bryan Hymel debuts, triumphs in Les Troyens.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Road to Rome: Bryan Hymel took over for Marcello Giordani in Les Troyens. 
Julie Boulliane looks on. Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
The night of a nor'easter is no time to go to the opera, let alone one that lasts five and a half hours. But the hardy souls sitting in the Metropolitan Opera house on Wednesday night for Berlioz' Les Troyens were rewarded. The reason: the Met debut of tenor Bryan Hymel, the Louisiana native who caught the attention of the opera world last year when he stepped in for Jonas Kaufmann in this opera at Covent Garden. Here, the singer was subbing for Marcello Giordani, who announced earlier this week that he'd a) dropped out of the show and b) removed the role of Enée from his repertory.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

When the Trojan Breaks

Casting changes in Les Troyens, Comte Ory.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
A wanderer no more: Marcello Giordani has announced he will cancel the four remaining Troyens
appearances and remove the role of Enée from his repertory.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
It's Saturday morning with the Christmas holiday right around the corner. And that means it's time to write about under-the-radar cast changes at the Metropolitan Opera.

According to a report published by our friends at parterre box (and sourced from the Met press office) Marcello Giordani has dropped out of the current revival of Les Troyens. The Italian tenor (whose other Berlioz operas at the Met have included the title roles in Benvenuto Cellini and La Damnation de Faust will "retire" the role of Enée from his repertory.

The exciting news: Mr. Giordani's replacement in this five-hour Berlioz-a-thon is tenor Bryan Hymel, a promising American tenor who just finished a Covent Garden run in Meyerbeer's Robert le Diable. The performances affected are Dec. 26 and 29, Jan. 1 and Jan. 5, which is the Live in HD broadcast of the opera.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Concert Review: Lied, Down the Garden Path

Winterize brings Schubert outdoors.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Christopher Dylan Herbert sings Schubert in Winterize.
Photo by the author.
Schubert's Winterreise is a harrowing descent into solitude, madness (and probably, hypothermia) told over 24 songs. Based on poems by Wilhelm Müller, this is the composer's crowning achievement in the field of lieder, a forbidding journey for any singer. Most performances take place in a concert or recital hall, with a formally attired singer and accompanist tracking the hapless protagonist's journey, a setting of relative comfort for audience and artists.

On Friday afternoon, New York baritone Christopher Dylan Herbert walked a different path, performing the song cycle at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden as part of a city-wide arts project, Make Music New York. This particular performance, dubbed Winterize, took place in the sere, leafless grounds of the Brooklyn Botanical Gardens on the first day of winter. Under a chilly, leaden sky, the songs of Schubert had new meaning and weight, especially as clouds rolled in over Prospect Heights and the wind picked up.

Although singing in the cold, Mr. Herbert proved to have a rich, theatrical baritone that had no difficulty being heard in this outdoor setting. He projected the emotions behind this descent into madness, capturing the irony of the cycle's more fantastical moments and the self-flagellating character of Schubert's protagonist. From the steady tramp of "Gute Nacht" through the manic determination of later songs like Mut, this was a consistent, and sometimes harrowing performance. He managed the wide spectrum of sounds, even floating a lovely "head voice" in the more difficult passages of Die Nebensonnen and the haunting despair of Der Leiermann.

Your Daily Gingerbread II

Some more holiday cheer from Superconductor.
What every kid (and adult) really wants under their tree.
Image from Ren and Stimpy © John Kricfalusi/MTV Networks.
Bach's Christmas Oratorio. 

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Your Daily Gingerbread

For your viewing pleasure this holiday season, the opening of Act II of Puccini's La bohème, filmed in 2003 at La Scala.

From the libretto:



A conflux of streets; where they meet, a square, flanked by shops of all sorts; on one side the Café Momus.
Aloof from the crowd, RUDOLPH and MIMI; COLLINE is near a rag-shop, SCHAUNARD stands outside a tinker's, buying a pipe and a horn, MARCEL is being hustled hither and thither.
A vast, motley crowd; soldiers, serving maids, boys, girls, children, students, work girls, gendarmes, etc. It is evening. The shops are decked with tiny lamps; a huge lantern lights up the entrance to the Café Momus. The café is so crowded that some of the customers are obliged to seat themselves outside.

(Content from Puccini's La bohème © Ricordi and Sons)

And you thought the streets of New York were crowded at Christmas.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The Superconductor 2012 Gift Guide

Lock the Door and Hit the Floor! 
(And by that I mean, Merry X-MAS!)
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Robot Santa trapped in ice. 'Cos it's been that kind of year.
Image from Futurama © Matt Groening/30th Century Fox Television.

'Twas less than a week before Christmas,
And all 'cross the Net,
Shoppers were realizing,
that their lists were not set.

In other words (and with apologies to Clement Clark Moore, we proudly present our annual guide to the best in new recordings and boxed sets for that hard-to-please classical music lover on your lis(z)t this year.

New Complete Operas:

Don Giovanni (Deutsche Grammophon, 2012)
This live recording from Baden-Baden offers the opportunity to hear an all-star cast of young singers, drawn from the current generation of stars. Diana Damrau, Joyce Di Donato, Ildebrando d'Arcangelo and Rolando Villazon spangle this energetic set, the first of a planned cycle of major Mozart operas on Deutsche Grammophon.

Tristan und Isolde (PentaTone, 2012)
The newest and best of Marek Janowski's half-completed survey of the ten mature Wagner operas, made in a live setting with the Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra. The reason to hear this set is soprano Nina Stemme, whose powerhouse Isolde veers from seething rage to passionate ecstasy. Mr. Janowski has the pulse of this unique score in a crystal-clear recording that benefits from the presence of a live audience.

The Bartered Bride (harmonia mundi, 2012)
The BBC Symphony Orchestra offers this energetic recording of Smetana's comedy, a work which none other than Gustav Mahler elevated to a repertory standard. The use of the original language preserves much of the opera's humor and rhythm, helped by an authentic Czech cast.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Opera Review: A Horse of Different Colors

The Metropolitan Opera revives Les Troyens.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Pyre woman: Didon (Susan Graham) goes to her death in Act V of Les Troyens.
Photo by Cory Weaver © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
Hector Berlioz' Les Troyens is the most ambitious of 19th century French operas. Clocking in at five acts and five hours (counting intermissions) the opera has divided opinion since its premiere, when Paris' Theatre-Lyrique would only present the second half of the opera as Les Troyens à Carthage. The first half, La Prise de Troie was never performed in the composer's lifetime.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Opera Review: The Da Ponte Code

Columbia's Casa Italia premieres Così Faran Tutti.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Cosí monsters: Ariana Chris, Mary Elizabeth Mackenzie, Glenn Seven Allen
and Marcy Richardson in Jonathan Dawe's Cosí Faran Tutti. Photo by Joel Graham.
Writing a new opera takes a certain amount of courage. But when that new work is a prequel to one of Mozart's legendary collaborations with librettist Lorenzo da Ponte, the creation and staging of that work becomes a matter of sheer nerve.

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Concert Review: An Unexpected Party

David Zinman steps in at the Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
David Zinman in motion. Photo courtesy
This week at the New York Philharmonic was supposed to be a summit of young artists. Canadian pianist Jan Lisiecki was scheduled to make his New York debut with the Schumann Piano Concerto. And on the podium: Daniel Harding, the imaginative young British conductor. Music lovers looked forward to hearing his interpretations of two Sibelius symphonies: the Third and Seventh.

However, Mr. Harding cancelled due to illness. His place was taken by David Zinman, the veteran American conductor (and Brooklyn native) who last appeared with the orchestra for The Modern Beethoven, a two-week survey of that composer's instrumental symphonies in March of this year. From the chugging cello-driven opening of the Sibelius Third, the audience at Friday morning's 11am concert knew that they, and the orchestra were in the hands of an expert.

Mr. Zinman's calling card is clarity, bringing out unusual textures from the depths of a well-known score so listeners sometimes walk out having heard a work in a different way. This approach was admirably suited to the Sibelius Third, a lean, thirsty symphony in which the Finnish composer eschewed nationalism and narrative for pure music and an economy of style that would serve as his second musical legacy.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Concert Review: The Last Party Hats

The American Symphony Orchestra fétes John Cage.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
John Cage turned 100 this year. We celebrate with this photo of him in a hat.
Image © The Estate of John Cage.
In New York City, the year 2012 will be remembered for natural disasters, pseudo-Mayan hysteria and the cheerful mayhem caused in the city's concert and recital halls by due to the observance of the 100th birthday of John Cage.

On Friday night, Leon Botstein and the American Symphony Orchestra acknowledged the centennial of that iconoclastic American composer with The Cage Concert at Carnegie Hall. The performance, which is (as far as we know) the last major concert of the year to feature Cage's music, included the New York premieres of two late works.

Unlike some concerts which rely on this composer's vast output to stand by itself, Dr. Botstein chose to place John Cage in a context of important musical directions of the 20th century. In encyclopedic fashion, the set list covered minimalism, indeterminacy, 12-tone serial organization and a healthy sense of the absurd, before culminating in the performance of three Cage compositions.

The performance opened with the most conventional music of the night: Anton Webern's Symphony. An example of Webern's intricate 12-tone style, this two-movement ten-minute work creates spidery, delicate textures, a brush of bassoon, a short series of notes on the strings, and (most importantly) a breath of empty space between the notes, the rests themselves forming part of the work's integral fabric.

Lay Down Your Guns

Some words from Emerson, Lake and...Powell.

In light of today's tragic events in Newtown CT, I wanted to share this lyric, from the underrated 1986 progressive rock album Emerson, Lake and Powell, recorded by the group of the same name. Due to Carl Palmer's commitment to the band Asia, he was replaced by the late drummer Cozy Powell, allowing ELP to keep its famous initials. This lineup only recorded one album together.

This was a song (and a record) I loved as a kid and today it's particularly relevant. It's also the last I'll say on the subject of Newtown on this page. 

Unfortunately, YouTube does not allow the video file of this song to play in the United Stated due to copyright issues with the Universal Music Group. However I have included a link included to in case you'd like to hear this for yourself. The lyrics are below the fold.

Blog Interrupted

A Brief Reflection on the Newtown Murders.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

Hi readers,

I am sitting here in the David Rubinstein Atrium at Lincoln Center. It is about 2pm on Friday, Dec. 14.

I just attended the New York Philharmonic's 11am concert, and was looking forward to a pleasant afternoon writing a review of that and of last night's American Symphony Orchestra concert featuring the music of John Cage.

But first, I need to use this space (and it is mine, after all) to talk about what happened this morning in Newtown, CT. According to police reports, 18 children and 9 adults were murdered by an unidentified male this morning in what media outlets are calling a massacre. Among the reported victims are kindergarten children, and their teacher.

I am not going to use this forum for a rant on gun control (which I believe in) or the wide availability of auto-loading pistols and rifles to the people of this country on both sides of the law (which I'm against.) This isn't about politics, Democrat vs. Republican or the Obama presidency.

I just want you to read this and think.

Sit there and breathe. Or like me, feel your breath stop and a cold stone form in your chest.

Think of those small bodies. And think about the adult-sized ones too.

Think about the terror in their eyes, and the moment when their eyes no longer saw anything.

Think about the music they'll never hear, the songs they will never sing, and the cold silence in their parents' homes.

And think about what might be done to prevent the next massacre. The next Columbine. Aurora. Newtown. The next murder of a John Lennon, Darrell Abbott, John F. Kennedy.

Think of what might be done and said by our elected representatives in the next few days, which might make all the difference for a nation shell-shocked by too many shells fired.

Normal service will be resumed eventually. But in the light of what's just happened, your author begs your indulgence.

Yours in grief,

Paul Pelkonen
Editor, Superconductor

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Concert Review: Rain Gods and Singing Devils

Gustavo Dudamel brings South American choral works to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Depiction of the Mayan water god, Chaac.
Conducting sensation Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela concluded their three-day stand at Carnegie Hall on Tuesday night with a program that offered a two South American choral works along with part of a new composition by Argentinean composer Esteban Benzecry.

Mr. Benzecry, who attended the concert, dedicated his Rituales Amerindos, which he describes as a "Pre-Columbian triptych" to Mr. Dudamel, who has conducted the complete work elsewhere. For this concert, the conductor chose Chaac (Mayan Water God), the central section that depicts the worship of the elephant-nosed deity of rain and thunder in the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico.

This slow, contemplative movement incorporates exotic percussion to evoke the rituals of Mayan water worship. The whoosh-and-patter of a rain stick is echoed by deep grumbles in the double basses and contrabassoon. Mr. Benzecry calls for a huge orchestra, but uses his resources in a spare, economical way. The result is fascinating, and contemplative, and left this listener wanting to hear the whole piece. (It hasn't been released on disc, but the work is available on YouTube, conducted by Mr. Dudamel.)

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Concert Review: The Sistema Works

The Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela returns to Carnegie Hall.
The Passion of the Dude: Gustavo Dudamel in action.
Photo © Los Angeles Philharmonic.
In 2007, the Simón Bolívar Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela created a New York sensation with their appearances at Carnegie Hall under te baton of their young maestro, Gustavo Dudamel. Five years later, Mr. Dudamel and the orchestra have returned for a two-night stand as part of Carnegie Hall's season-long intitiative, Voices of Latin America. (Mr. Dudamel serves as one of the four artistic advisors on the series' content.)

Mr. Dudamel is now 30, and the word "Youth" has vanished from the orchestra's posters.

Indeed, one thing that could be said for this ambitious program of Latin American classics (presented on Monday night at Carnegie Hall) is that the players, groomed in the Venezuelan government's ballyhooed El Sistema program have a tremendous sense of what it takes to play as an ensemble. And  Mr. Dudamel, formerly of their ranks conducts these vast forces without a score, using an easy a command born of long familiarity and musical collaboration.

All three works on this program would challenge any orchestra. Eduardo Chávez's Sinfonía india led off, a twelve-minute work that draws inspiration from Mayan source material. Chavez was an important Mexican composer from the 1930s. His tonal language bears some similarity to the Latin-flavored works of Aaron Copland, with inventive percussion and wind writing evoking the ancient rituals of the Yucatan peninsula.

The Hallelujah Alternative

A look at upcoming holiday concerts in New York.
Image from the film Hallelujah © 1929 MGM Pictures.
I know it's been a while since we've done a calendar post on this blog--the work that went into them was not equalling the amount of page views and clicks every month. However, as the holidays approach we would like to take a look around our fair city and offer up some alternatives to holiday merriment in various local music merriment. 

Do not fear, New Yorkers: there are plenty of performances of Handel's Messiah scheduled in the two-week run-up to Christmas.

The famed oratorio returns to the New York Philharmonic this season with a strong cast of singers and the New York Choral Artists. 
Dec. 18-22 at Avery Fisher Hall

It will also be heard at St. Thomas' Church (Dec. 11, 13) Avery Fisher Hall (Dec. 12 with the Trinity Choir, Dec. 17 with the National Choral Council Messiah Sing-In) Carnegie Hall (Dec. 20, with two performances Dec. 23 at 2pm and 7:30pm) and elsewhere. 

But this year, we're moving beyond Messiah to explore some alternative holiday concerts that offer other composers' equally profound takes on the reason for the season. 

Monday, December 10, 2012

Obituary: Charles Rosen (1927-2012)

Pianist, educator, author was 85.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The pianist and author Charles Rosen from the cover of his book
 Music and Sentiment. Image © 2010 Yale University Press. 

Photo from the Lebrecht Archive at
Charles Rosen, the pianist, author and educator whose written works included The Classical Style and The Romantic Generation has died in New York. He was 85.

Dr. Rosen started his study of the piano at the age of four. He was an accomplished performer whose teachers included Moriz Rosenthal (1862-1946) a pupil of Franz Liszt. However, the pianist Józef Hoffmann was his most important influence.

In a 2007 interview with BBC Music Magazine, Dr. Rosen recounted a story from when he was 7. Young Charles was asked to play for the pianist and composer Leopold Godowsky, himself a superstar of the keyboard. When asked by the older man what he wanted to be when he grew up, the youth said: "A pianist just like Józef Hoffmann."

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Les Troyens

The Met brings back Berlioz' classical epic.
by Paul Pelkonen
The Trojan Horse in Act I of Les Troyens in the Met's production. That's Deborah Voigt at the left.
Photo by Marty Sohl © 2003 The Metropolitan Opera.
A snarky opera commentator might call this revival The Return of the Horse. The Met brings back Francesca Zambello's stunning production of Hector Berlioz' longest opera, a sweeping adaptation of Virgil's Aeneid. And yes it's over five hours long.

When it premiered in 1858, Berlioz' five-act tragédie-lyrique was split into two halves La prise de Troi ("The Sack of Troy") and Les Troyens a Carthage. ("The Trojans at Carthage.") The Theatre-Lyrique (now the Chatelet) in Paris opted to perform the second half, with heavy cuts. La Prise remained unperformed until 1890. The complete opera had to wait until 1921. The Met plays the whole five acts. The entire show clocks in at about five-and-a-half hours, depending on the conductor--in this case Met Principal Conductor Fabio Luisi.

Troyens is Berlioz' most ambitious work, using repeated melodies and themes to retell the story of Enee (Aeneas), his escape from the burning city of Troy. The second half follows the Trojans across the Mediterranean and recounts Enee's his disastrous love affair with Didon, (Dido) the Queen of Carthage.  Marcello Giordani armors up as Enee. Deborah Voigt takes off her Valkyrie wings to utter warnings as Cassandra. Susan Graham sings Didon, a role created in this production by the late Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Fabio Luisi conducts.

Les Troyens opens December 13. Please note, start time for (most) evening performances is 6pm.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Opera Review: The Serenity Now

The Manhattan School of Music mounts Thaïs.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Spiritual seeker: Rebecca Krynski sings the title role of Thaïs at MSM.
Photo by Jeffrey Langford © 2012 Manhattan School of Music.
Jules Massenet's Thaïs is a strange girl.  In telling the story of an ascetic monk's disastrous obsession with the title character, a famous (fictional) prostitute in 4th century Egypt, the composer was striving to show the clash between pagan belief and the Christian world. What he got was an uneasy alliance between the soul-searching of Wagner's Tannhäuser and the heartbreak of Verdi's La Traviata.

In other words, when the goddess of love met early evangelism, there were no winners.

Happily, this production at the Manhattan School of Music (seen Friday night with the second cast) overcame the composer's florid mix of (Verdian) pathos and (Wagnerian) piety to create sympathetic, believable portraits of these outsized characters. The singers were couched within a simple, pleasing production (designed by André Barbe and originally seen at the Opera de Montréal) that used a contrast of bright colors (the lighting is by Guy Simard) and costumes (also by Mr. Barbé, from the Opera of St. Louis) to create an attractive show that evoked Massenet's Egypt with minimal means.

The severe vocal challenges written into the title role are one factor that keeps Thaïs off the world's stages. Soprano Rebecca Krynski made a convincing case for herself in the part, tracing the courtesan's path from bordello to cloister with a powerhouse performance that anchored the whole show. Elegant and teasing in the first act, Ms. Krynski managed to make Thaïs' lightning-quick conversion in Act II into a believable theatrical coup.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Concert Review: 100 Nights of Fun and Games

André Watts celebrates a Philharmonic milestone.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
André Watts. Photo by Steve J. Sherman © CM Artists.
On Thursday night, the pianist André Watts made his one hundredth appearance with the New York Philharmonic. The program, which featured the soloist playing Rachmaninoff's well-loved Second Piano Concerto also marked the second appearance of an exciting young conductor, Juraj Valčuha, who is giving his first set of subscription concerts this weekend at Avery Fisher Hall.

Let's flash back for a moment, to Jan. 1, 1963. The Philharmonic was in a crisis. Leonard Bernstein had just learned that Glenn Gould had cancelled due to illness. The eccentric Canadian pianist was scheduled to perform Liszt's First Piano Concerto in a subscription concert. Bernstein turned to Mr. Watts, then 16, to play the solo part. Two weeks later, a repeat of the same concerto was broadcast on television, and an international concert career was launched.

Enough history. The Rachmaninoff work is well-known, from its distinctive opening of tolling bell-intervals to its famous main theme, later rewritten as a Sinatra ballad ("Full Moon and Empty Arms"). The bells open the piece played by the soloist's left hand long before the orchestra enters. This doleful sound that evokes the composer's love of Russian church music. Mr. Watts expanded on this idea in the first movement, letting loose a free-flowing stream of melodic ideas and good-natured musical argument with the orchestra.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Opera Review: Bright Stars on a Dark Horse

The Collegiate Chorale mounts Beatrice di Tenda.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The soprano Angela Meade. Photo by Dario Acosta © the artist.
On Wednesday night, the Collegiate Chorale overcame a surprisingly early start time (6pm?!) and a misbehaving supertitle screen to deliver their first opera of the season: Vincenzo Bellini's Beatrice di Tenda. Written between the twin peaks of Norma and I puritani this is the dark horse in the composer's canon. First presented in a famous 1961 concert performance with Joan Sutherland and Marilyn Horne, Beatrice hasn't been mounted in New York (in any form) since 1988.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Movie Review: Four Against Beethoven

Superconductor takes on A Late Quartet
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Fugue String Quartet (l.r.) Mark Ivanir, Philip Seymour Hoffman,
Catherine Keener, Christopher Walken. Image © 2012 RKO Pictures.
It's all Haydn's fault.

Ever since that composer came up with the idea of writing sonata forms for the combination of two violins, viola and violoncello, the string quartet has been one of the most intimate forms of musical expression. Composers have used this format to express their innermost thoughts, delving to depths of misery and despair (Shostakovich) or expressing cosmic truths (Beethoven) through this unique combination of instruments.

A Late Quartet, the new film by Yaron Zilberman explores not just the music but the complex personal intertwinings of the four members of the (fictional) Fugue String Quartet. They are New Yorkers who find themselves thrust into chaos when their cellist, Peter Mitchell (Christopher Walken) develops Parkinson's disease. With retirement looming, he decides to end his concert career with Beethoven's difficult Op. 131, a seven-movement marathon that must be played attacca--without pauses between movements.

The screenplay (by Mr. Zilberman with Seth Grossman) takes pains to explain that the cello's role is to support the other instruments as it moves through the musical depths of a piece. And Mr. Walken's character provides that support--serving as a surrogate father figure to Juliette Gelbart, the group's violist (Catherine Keener) , and paterfamilias to the whole ensemble and their inner circle.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Opera Preview: Beatrice di Tenda

The Collegiate Chorale presents a Bellini rarity.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Angela Meade stars in Beatrice di Tenda.
On Wednesday night at Carnegie Hall, the Collegiate Chorale will present a rare New York performance of Beatrice di Tenda by the bel canto composer Vincenzo Bellini. This is the first performance of this opera in New York since 1988.

Please note: the performance starts at 6pm.

Beatrice stands in the composers's canon between Norma and I Puritani. The opera has a compelling title role (sung here by Angela Meade) and a style of dark choral writing that inspired Verdi in early operas such as Ernani and I due Foscari.

The plot deals with Beatrice's unhappy marriage to Filippo, the Duke of Milan. Filippo has eyes for Agnese, a rial at court. She, in turn is in love with Orombello, another courtier. In the opera's climax, the Duke and Agnese accuse Beatrice of adultery...with Orombello. A trial follows and Beatrice is sentenced to death. The libretto (by Bellini's usual collaborator, Felice Romani) has a curiously unfinished quality, which may account for why Beatrice has never gained a foothold with the public.

However, with singers like this, you don't need to worry too much about the plot. Angela Meade takes on Beatrice. This is the bel canto soprano's first major New York appearance of the 2012 season. She is joined by mezzo Jamie Barton as Agnese, tenor Michael Spyres (Orombello) and baritone Nicholes Pallesan. James Bagwell conducts the Collegiate Chorale and the American Symphony Orchestra.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Concert Review: In the Big Dream

The MET Orchestra at Carnegie Hall
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fabio Luisi apparently demonstrating the proper way to eat one's baton.
Photo by Barbara Luisi.
Fabio Luisi has been an important figure in the musical life of New Yorkers in the last two years. Last season, he was promoted to Principal Conductor in the wake of a seemingly catastrophic series of health problems for the Metropolitan Opera's Music Director, James Levine. On Sunday afternoon, Mr. Luisi led the MET Orchestra (as they are billed for concerts0 in a bold, ambitious program, showing that even with Mr. Levine's impending return to conducting in 2013, this conductor is confident in putting his stamp on the ensemble in a concert setting.

This was an ambitious program. It started with the first Carnegie Hall performance of In tempus praesens, ("In the present time") the second violin concerto from the pen of Russian-Tatar composer Sofia Gubaidulina. Here, the solo part was taken by Met concertmaster David Chan. In tempus praesans begins with a deceptively simple series of wide intervals on the solo violin: less than a melody but more than a tone-row. From there, the piece set the soloist against the tuttis from a very large orchestra, minus its violin section.

Judging from a first listen, this piece folk influences of central Russia and the ancient, pagan ceremonies that also inspired Stravinsky's Rite. Huge, slab-like constructs were laid down by the violin-less string section. They seemed to rise up and impede the soloist's progress through the score. Colorful percussion and adventurous tonalities make one think of the late works of Scriabin, pushing the boundaries of tonality in the quest for mystic understanding through music.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Concert Review: The Importance of Winged Helmets

The Philadelphia Orchestra takes on (parts of) the Ring.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Your Valkyrie Airlines flight director: conductor Donald Runnicles.
Photo by Ken Friedman © San Francisco Opera.
In the last two years, as the Philadelphia Orchestra has struggled with (and emerged from) bankruptcy, programming for the ensemble's Kimmel Center concerts has been somewhat conservative. This is no doubt in an effort to keep the interest of an aging audience intent on hearing their favorites. Those conservative listeners were thrilled by this week's program selection, featuring Scottish maestro Donald Runnicles leading Beethoven's First Piano Concerto (with soloist Lars Vogt) and an hour's worth of selections from Richard Wagner's mighty Ring Cycle.

The Beethoven opened the program, with Mr. Vogt displaying his precise, pedal-heavy approach to this music. Mr. Runnicles drove the accompaniment forward, reveling in the lush strings and winds that characterize the "Philly sound." Mr. Vogt too, seemed comfortable in his approach to the solo part, playing with a warm, singing tone and an appreciation for the robust humor that infects this early work. Especially impressive, the tricky cadenzas of the third movement, answered back by robust tone from the orchestra.

Mr. Runnicles returned to start the Wagner excerpts with the Ride of the Valkyries, that Act III curtain-raiser from Die Walküre beloved of Army colonels and a certain, magic helmet wearing rabbit-hunter. Although the early horn-calls featured a few false notes at the top of the phrase, the players settled in to create the illusion of soaring flight and wild warrior women without the aid of sopranos, costumes, or rising and falling planks. The cellos were particularly fine here, supplying the tricky "horse" rhythms that are the engines of this piece.

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