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

Sunday, March 31, 2019

Opera Review: All the Pretty Horses

Die Walküre returns at the Metropolitan Opera.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Fearless: Christine Goerke makes her Act II entrance as Brunnhilde in Die Walküre.
Photo by Richard Termine © 2019 The Metropolitan Opera.
It's hard to believe, but the Metropolitan Opera’s controversial Robert Lepage production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle has been treading the boards at America's largest opera house since 2011. That's ten years that New York's Wagner addicts have had to deal with this technologically innovative but sometimes balky production, set on a hi-tech platform ("the Machine") that uses spinning and rotating teeter-totter boards to create scenery for this massive mythological work. This week marked the return of Die Walküre, the most popular section of the Ring. It was also the only Ring opera to be included in this season's Live in HD schedule. Saturday's matinee, the second performance of the season. was also the opera's broadcast day.

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Concert Review: Her Dark Materials

With the Mahler Chamber Orchestra, Mitsuko Uchida returns to Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The ten magic fingers of Mitsuko Uchida. Photo by Jean Radel.
The art of conducting a piano concerto from the keyboard, and also playing the fiendishly difficult piano parts written into such a work, sometimes produces conflicting results. Soloists used to the traditional position in front of a conductor may find themselves relying on the bow of their concertmaster. Others may have trouble splitting the tasks of orchestral leadership and visiting virtuoso. None of those problems befell Mitsuko Uchida, who brought her current collaborators in the Mahler Chamber Orchestra to Carnegie Hall for a concert of Mozart and Berg on Friday night.

Friday, March 29, 2019

At an Exhibition: At Play in the Color Fields

Spilling Over opens at the Whitney.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

(Yes, this is not a music review, but the second installment in a new series about visual art, called At an Exhibition.)
Do not attempt to adjust your television: Kenneth Noland's New Day.
Image courtesy the Whitney Museum, © 1967 the artist.
At the Whitney Museum, proudly located on the rubble of what used to be New York’s meat-packing district, there are lines going down the block. The reason: the imminent closure of an extensive exhibit devoted to Andy Warhol. However, this week the top floor of the museum sees the opening of Spilling Over: Painting Color in the 1960s. Small and carefully curated from the Whitney's collection, this exhibit explores some of the bright visual territories mapped out by painters who worked in simple lines, bright colors and geometric shapes.

Thursday, March 28, 2019

Recordings Review: Meet the New Boss

Sir Simon Rattle leads the LSO in La Damnation de Faust.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Karen Cargill and Bryan Hymel ride the highway to hell in Berlioz' La damnation de Faust.
Photo by Doug Peters for PA Wire © 2017 London Symphony Orchestra.
This month, the classical music industry has chosen to celebrate (if that's the right word) the sesquicentennial (the 150th) anniversary of the death of Hector Berlioz. As part of the festivities, the London Symphony Orchestra (on its LSOLive imprint) has unleashed a new recording of La Damnation de Faust. This recording, made at live performances in September of 2017, marks the historic orchestra’s first release under the baton of its new music director, Sir Simon Rattle. 

Wednesday, March 27, 2019

Devilish Deeds: A Fast Guide to Faust

Or, how to keep seven different versions of the same story straight.
by Paul J. Pelkonen

(This post first appeared as a Patron Exclusive on Superconductor's Patreon page. Support independent arts journalism at our Patreon.)
The Devil you say! Rene Pape as Mephistopheles in Gounod's Faust.
Photo by Catherine Ashmore for the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.
"Faust by Christopher Marlowe. Faust by Goethe. Faust by Gounod, Faust by Hector Berlioz. I tell you, anyone who touches this idea has turned it into a gold mine."--Jeffrey Cordova in The Band Wagon. (In the film, his attempt to turn a Broadway show into a modern-day production of Faust turns out to be a dreadful box-office bomb.)

When you start getting interested in classical music, it is overwhelming how many composers set versions of Faust. The story of the German scholar who sells his soul to a representative of the power of darkness in an effort to regain his youth and find love has universal human resonance. The following is a mercifully brief and incomplete guide to different versions of Faust with a focus on those that incorporate music drama and voice into re-telling the story. (That's to get me off the hook for not mentioning the "Faust Symphonies" by Liszt and Wagner!) With that, let's dive into the depths of hell for seven versions of seven different composers.

Tuesday, March 26, 2019

Concert Review: The Weight on His Shoulders

Jaap van Zweden leads Brahms, Adams and Ives at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Man at work: Jaap van Zweden rallies the New York Philharmonic at David Geffen Hall.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2018 The New York Philharmonic
It's not easy to be music director of the New York Philharmonic.

America's longest-serving orchestra has a proud history of conductors and composers at its helm, legendary figures too numerous to list here. On Saturday night, Jaap van Zweden, who is in the homestretch of his first season at the helm of the Philharmonic, led the second of three programs that were firmly in the expectations that this city has of its music director. The concert was evenly split between twentieth century American music and the 19th century German repertory that is so beloved by the Philharmonic's more conservative subscribers. It was the sort of program that a Bernstein or Boulez might assemble, an adroit and canny mix of old and new sensibilities.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Metropolitan Opera Preview: La Clemenza di Tito

Mozart's drama of intrigue and attempted assassination in Ancient Rome.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Matthew Polenzani (seen here in the title role of Mozart's Idomeneo)
sings the title role in La Clemenza di Tito at the Metropolitan Opera this season.
Photo © 2019 The Metropolitan Opera.
A stellar cast (Joyce DiDonato, Matthew Polenzani, Elza van den Heever) takes the stage in this late season revival of Mozart's opera seria of passion and power politics.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Opera Review: One Little Goat

Amore Opera celebrates a decade with Meyerbeer's Dinorah.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Looking for goats in all the wrong places: Jennifer Moore in Dinorah.
Photo © Amore Opera.
Mention composer Giacomo Meyerbeer to an opera lover and they will think of enormous five-movement works with extravagant staging requirements, lengthy ballets and tremendous orchestral and choral requirements. And yet, there was another less elaborate side to the Meyerbeer. This month, the small Amore Opera company, which is celebrating a decade of bringing intimate opera to the ears of New Yorkers, brought back Dinorah. This is an all but forgotten pastoral fairy tale, in the genre of  opera-comique that had not been staged in New York in 100 years. Sung in French and linked with spoken dialogue passages delivered in English, this proved to be a fun Saturday afternoon at the theater at Riverside Church.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Concert Review: Wide Boys

Thomas Adès conducts the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Thomas Adès: Photo by Jesse Costa for the Boston Symphony Orchestra

Although the first conductors were themselves composers, the wearing of both hats at the helm of a symphony orchestra is always cause for comment. On Wednesday night, the British composer Thomas Adès, who is currently in the new role of "Artistic Partner" with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, led that band at Carnegie Hall in a program featuring the New York debut of his Piano Concerto.

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

Concert Review: Call Her Madeleine

Renée Fleming returns to Strauss at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
She's not done yet: soprano Renée Fleming. Photo by Andrew Eccles.
The soprano Renée Fleming remains a legitimate superstar. So it caused particular turmoil in the operatic world last year when she announced that the performances as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss' opera Der Rosenkavalier would be her that role. Last night at Carnegie Hall, Ms. Fleming returned to Strauss as another heroine, the Countess Madeleine in the composer's final opera, Capriccio.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Opera Review: Deviled Eggs

The Washington National Opera's Faust goes directly to Hell.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Hellbound: Raymond Aceto as Méphistophélès in Faust.
Photo by Scott Suchman for the Washington National Opera.
In the last hundred years, Charles Gounod's Faust has fallen from the pinnacle of the repertory. Its descent has been rapid, almost as fast as that of its protagonist, a searching scholar who sells his soul to Satan in the opera's first act. Faust has fallen into irrelevance in this new century. Its stirring choruses, sweet harmonies and story of demonic love and angelic redemption seem quaint in this dark age. When fascists are defended in the media by the sitting President, and hatred lurks in the corridors of power, Faust just ain't scary anymore.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Opera Review: The Wasted Generation

The Washington National Opera brings back the Robert Carsen production of Eugene Onegin.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Anna Nechaeva falls hard for the title character in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin.
Photo courtesy the Washington National Opera and the Kennedy Center.
You can take a boy out of New York City but you can’t take New York out of the boy. That aphorism seems to apply to Sunday’s matinee performance of Eugene Onegin by the Washington National Opera at the Kennedy Center. This production, the WNO’s first staging of Tchaikovsky’s opera in thirty years, uses the Robert Carsen production that premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in 1997. It is still handsome and minimalist, playing out the drama in a box of plain white wall.s the characters move through drifts of leaves, elegantly attired and perching on antique furniture in this stark landscape.

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Concert Review: Everything Old is New Again

Conductor Ton Koopman gives a history lesson at the Kennedy Center.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor, scholar and multi-instrumentalist Ton Koopman led the National Symphony Orchestra
this week at the Kennedy Center. Photo © 2017 Berlin Philharmonic for the digital concert hall.

It’s not every week that a symphony orchestra springs a trio of premieres on its subscription audience, but that's what happened on Friday morning at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. The ensemble was the National Symphony Orchestra and the conductor of said concerts was Ton Koopman. The Amsterdam-based organist, harpsichordist and scholar remains a legend in the field of period and historically informed performance. 

Friday, March 15, 2019

Concert Review: The Truth About Wolfgang

Manfred Hönick conducts Mozart's Requiem at the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Conductor Manfred Honeck signals victory (or something) at the New York Philharmonic.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2019 The New York Philharmonic.
There is no unfinished work in the canon of Western art music that has more myth, legend and sheer bunkum associated with it than Mozart's Requiem. From the work's (true) mysterious origins to the (false) dramatic stories written around its composition, this work has acquired a life of its own in Western culture. This week at the New York Philharmonic, conductor Manfred Honeck led an all-Mozart program geared toward the music of 1791, the last, turbulent year of Mozart's life.

Concert Review: Vocation or Avocation?

Esa-Pekka Salonen brings back his Cello Concerto.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
And usually just a t-shirt: Esa-Pekka Salonen.
Photo by Laurie Lewis.
In recent years, Esa-Pekka Salonen declared himself to be more interested in composition than the daily drudgeries of running a major symphony orchestra. However, his recent slate of podium appearances with the Philharmonia Orchestra indicate that Mr. Salonen's baton has lost none of its bite. On Monday night, Mr. Salonen led the Philharmonia (which he will depart from in 2020 for a job with the San Francisco Symphony) in the second of two concerts at Lincoln Center this week, with his own Cello Concerto flanked by orchestral works by Sibelius and Stravinsky.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Concert Review: The Answers Lie Within

The Chamber Music Society kicks off its Russian Panorama festival.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Like these Matroyshka dolls, Russian musical tradition has a complicated history.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.
The Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center is on a mission this month: to explore the vast and mostly ignored field of Russian music beyond the "big names." True, the chamber works of Tchaikovsky and the quartets of Shostakovich are repertory staples, but Sunday's concert at Alice Tully Hall was dedicated (with one notable exception) to composers whose catalogues are new to Western ears.

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Die Walküre

The Met revives the most popular chapter of Wagner's Ring.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The twins Sieglinde (Eva-Marie Westbroek) and Siegmund (Stuart Skelton)
fall in love under the looming Machine in the Met's production of Die Walküre.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2012 The Metropolitan Opera.
Part Two of the Ring brings humans into the story, but the Gods have already messed everything up. Wotan, the ruler of the Gods, seeks a hero to lead his forces against the dark elf Alberich. But he finds himself in a position of having to murder that hero Siegmund. This is too much for his favorite daughter, the Valkyrie Brunnhilde. She rebels against him, and then runs for her life.

What is Die Walküre?
Properly speaking, this is the "First Day" of the four-part "festival play" that is Wagner's Ring. (The composer regarded Das Rheingold as a "preliminary evening.) This is the most famous and frequently performed of the four operas that make up the cycle.

What's the plot?
On a dark and stormy night, the Wälsung twins Siegmund and Sieglinde are reunited, seemingly by chance. They fall in love, committing adultery and incest at the same time. (The result of their brief union will be the title character of Siegfried.) Wotan, who is their father, is forced by his wife Fricka (the goddess of marriage) to order Brunnhilde the Valkyrie fight for Sieglinde's jilted husband Hunding. Brunnhilde rebels, but Hunding kills Siegmund anyway. Brunnhilde saves Sieglinde from Wotan. She is then punished by her father, put to sleep on top of a rock in a ring of magic fire.

What's the music like?
Die Walküre is the opera people think of when they think of Wagner. The first act is all passion as Sieglinde and Siegmund find each other and fall madly in love. The second act has a long stretch of Wotan reiterating all the mistakes he made in Das Rheingold to Brunnhilde. Its second half is all action, as Siegmund battles Hunding. The "Ride of the Valkyries" (that's "kill the wabbit") opens the third act. The "Magic Fire Music" ends the opera in a storm of orchestral virtuosity.

Tell me something else cool!
Of the four Ring operas, it is Die Walküre that hews closest to Wagner's theories of opera and drama. There are few aria-like moments, and the opera is composed mostly of dialogue and duets over a thundering orchestra.

How's the production?
These performances mark the  return of Robert Lepage's sometimes stunning, sometimes problematic multi-million dollar stage set, known at the Met as "The Machine." Mounted on two huge towers, the action takes place on a series of gigantic parallel planks that rotate on a central axis. By changing their angles and locking the planks in place, the Machine creates trees, mountains, valleys and even huge flying animals when necessary. Digital projections render the scenery in vivid patterns, a high-tech solution to Romantic 19th century opera.

Who's in it?
These performances star Greer Grimsley as Wotan, and mark the eagerly anticipated arrival of Christine Goerke as his rebellious daughter Brunnhilde. Jamie Barton is Fricka. The twins Siegmund and Sieglinde are reprised by Stuart Skelton and Eva-Marie Westbroek. (They sang these roles in 2012.) Günther Gröissbock is the villainous Hunding.  Philippe Jordan conducts his first Ring performances at the Met.

When does it open?
There are only five performances of Die Walküre this season. Three are being sold as part of complete Ring cycles. The two in March are on March 25 and 30.

How do I get tickets?
The best way to see the Ring is to get a subscription for the four operas. Call the box office at (212) 362-6000.

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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Concert Review: Knocking Out the Heavyweight

Esa-Pekka Salonen conducts the Bruckner Seventh.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Esa-Pekka Salonen does his best Karajan face. Photo © Signum Classics.
In the course of his conducting career, the Finnish composer Esa-Pekka Salonen has focused heavily on the music of contemporary composers and the 20th century. True, there's been Beethoven here and there, and excursions into Wagner. However, as Mr. Salonen prepares to take over a new job in San Francisco, a reconsideration of repertory is no bad thing. This might explain why the first of Mr. Salonen's two concerts this weekend with the Philharmonia Orchestra focused exclusively on one of Anton Bruckner's enormous late symphonies, specifically the Symphony No. 7.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Concert Review: Some Famous Last Words

Long Yu conducts the New York Philharmonic.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yo-Yo Ma. Photo © 2019 Sony Classical.
The last compositions by any composer, especially those with shortened lives like Modest Mussorgsky and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, command a certain respect from listeners. This week at the New York Philharmonic, the orchestra played works by each man, flanking the New York premiere of a new concerto for pipa and cello by the second-generation Chinese composer Zhao Lin. The orchestra was conducted by Long Yu, who has developed a tremendous reputation in his own country (he has been referred to as the "Chinese Valery Gergiev") but has yet to break into podium stardom here.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Opera Review: The Return of Robot Monster

The Met brings back the Ring, and the "Machine."
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Striking it rich: Tomasz Konieczny had a strong Met debut as Alberich in Das Rheingold.
Photo by Ken Howard © 2019 The Metropolitan Opera.
Albert Einstein once said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Which might account for why the Metropolitan Opera chose this spring to revive its huge, hideously expensive and critically pounded Robert Lepage staging of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen. There are three cycles this season, and a few extra performances of the opera. Saturday afternoon marked the start of Cycle I, a sold-out Das Rheingold that, unaccountably still had a few empty seats.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Concert Review: The Music Doesn't Lie

Yannick Nézet-Séguin conducts Schubert at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Yannick Nézet-Séguin (center) Jan Lisiecki (right) and the Philadelphia Orchestra.
Photo by Ebru Yildiz for National Public Radio.
New York's relationship with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin has undergone a fundamental change since the maestro added the music directorship of the Metropolitan Opera to his duties. On Friday night at Carnegie Hall, his entrance was met with a storm of applause for a conductor, who was leading his other ensemble, the Philadelphia Orchestra in a program of Schubert, Mendelssohn and a new piece by Nico Muhly. He has become a beloved and essential musical figure, who will hopefully only rise in prominence in the decade to come.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Concert Review: A Meeting of Kindred Spirits

Sir András Schiff pairs Schumann and Janáček at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Sir András Schiff. Photo by Paul Schiffli for the Lucerne Festival.
"You have to understand that the two composers on this program have absolutely nothing to do with each other."

This remark, met with laughter from a packed Carnegie Hall, was delivered by the Hungarian pianist Sir András Schiff as part of a short lecture that he gave before the second half of Thursday night's piano recital. The concert consisted of four works, two by Robert Schumann and two by Leoš Janáček. Sir András pointed out that Janáček was only six years old when Schumann died in Bonn, Germany, and that while one of these men was raised in the German musical tradition, the other was completely self-taught.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Concert Review: Beyond the Realms of Death

Michael Tilson Thomas conducts Mahler's Ninth Symphony.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
New world man: Michael Tilson Thomas.
Photo by Vahan Stepanyan from

Gustav Mahler once said that "a symphony must be like the world." His Symphony No. 9 (the composer's last complete work) moves well beyond earthly experience. On Wednesday night, Michael Tilson Thomas and the Vienna Philharmonic tried to wring every drop of meaning from its four sphinx-like movements in a sprawling performance at Carnegie Hall. Stretching the endurance of musicians, audience and the music itself, their efforts may have met with some success.

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Concert Review: When They Were Kings

The Vienna Philharmonic sets the wayback machine at Carnegie Hall.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Michael Tilson Thomas leads the Vienna Philharmonic on tour in Europe.
Photo by Filip Waldmann from

Imagine dear reader, that it's forty-odd years ago. You're reading this review not on a screen but in the pages of a local black and white newspaper, written by a modestly compensated professional staff critic. In this time, the touring virtuoso is a revered figure in the interpretation of so-called "classical"  music. And the conductor, propped up by the determined efforts of a hugely profitable vinyl-based classical music industry, is still king. That's the heady era that was revisited in Tuesday's Carnegie Hall concert with Michael Tilson Thomas leading the Vienna Philharmonic in the first of their two performances together this week.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Concert Review: A League of Their Own

The Vienna Philharmonic return to Carnegie Hall. 
by Paul J. Pelkonen
The Fischer king: Adam Fischer leads the Vienna Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall.
Photo by Chris Lee © 2019 Carnegie Hall.
The first thing you notice is the sound.

It starts in the strings, warm, rich and wine-dark. The tone of the instruments is a little deeper and fuller than other ensembles. Then the horns, the Viennese horn in F that is narrower in bore and harder to play and keep in tune, with an antique valve design that allows for easier legato playing. The oboes are different, shorter and wider than the French instruments played by most professionals. Finally, there's the kettledrums: there are just two. They are small by modern standards, beaten copper bowls with goatskin heads. They have a pert voice of their own.

Monday, March 4, 2019

Metropolitan Opera Preview: Das Rheingold

The Ring begins. (Do I really need to embellish more?)
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Wotan and Loge take the "Machine" express down to Nibelheim in a
key scene from Das Rheingold. Photo © 2010 The Metropolitan Opera.
Gods, dwarves, mermaids and giants on an enormous pinning mechanical stage set. What's not to love about the opening opera of Wagner's Ring?

Sunday, March 3, 2019

Concert Review: The Departed

The Orchestra of St. Luke's exercises its labor rights.
by Paul J. Pelkonen
Where's the orchestra? Conductor Bernard Labadie stands alone.
Photo © 2019 Orchestra of St. Luke's

When an orchestra brings in a new music director, there is always a shift in terms of programming and focus. Consider if you will the Orchestra of St. Luke's that outstanding and flexible ensemble that gives regular concerts at Carnegie Hall, and its new boss Bernard Labadie. On Thursday night, the Orchestra played a program of Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, celebrating the virtue of all things right, proper and classically structured.

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