Monday, June 18, 2018

Taminophile profiles The Shirtless Violinist!

OK, I usually profile singers, but I was so interested in how Matthew Olshefski, aka The Shirtless Violinist (just look at him!  **swoon**), has attracted people to classical music that I reached out to ask a few questions.  He has a presence on all sorts of social media, and the links are below.  

To start, some videos:

Is there anything in your background that is not easily found in your public web sites that you'd like people to know?

I don’t often get the chance to talk about the teachers I’ve had the opportunity to study under as I was growing up and learning to play the violin. Last week was Teacher Appreciation Week (as he was writing the answers--some times has passed), so I would love to mention how grateful I am for the time I spent with my teachers, including Almita and Roland Vamos, Ruggiero Ricci, Benny Kim, Zakhar Brohn, and Dorothy DeLay.  You asked about overcoming problematic teaching, and I can easily say I've had great teachers from the start.

You and your adorable boyfriend make your relationship very public.  Any concerns or regrets about that?  Benefits vs. costs of various kinds?

No regrets at all! Paul and I are happy to represent the LGBT community as a loving couple in a healthy relationship. The more opportunities we have, as a community, to portray gay relationships in a real way - the better! This has become an important aspect of what we do. The beauty of social media is that we control it; we keep certain things private, and choose to share others. 

Since you've become known as The Shirtless Violinist, how has life changed?  

I get to record music regularly, interact with fans around the world, and plan these exciting music video projects. All of that is new to me - and I absolutely love it. But when you get right down to the day-to-day of life, not much has changed at all! I go the gym; spend quality time with my boyfriend; run errands; watch Netflix; and I still have my day job as a violin teacher. I’m the same person, just with a few new things thrown into the mix!

I've talked to singers and other artists about marketing and brand.  What is the most important thing about your brand?

The answer is an evolving one! In the beginning I would have said it’s all about the music and the beauty of the violin. My body and physique have always just been an added bit of fun, it’s not the driving force behind what I’m doing. But as the platform has grown and the videos have found a new audience, I have discovered that the brand is about representing the LGBTQ community and portraying gay relationships in a positive and relatable way. Although the brand will always remain music-focused, Paul and I have both been delighted to become part of LGBTQ visibility on a global scale.

Of course you get a lot of notoriety about your looks.  I've talked with male singers who often sing shirtless about this--do you think it detracts from your brand, or becomes your brand?  (I recognize this is how you first achieved widespread publicity, so that will affect how you answer this question.)

When I decided to start performing shirtless, I did so knowing that it would invite a new audience. I wanted to reach people who had never considered sitting down and listening to the violin before. I can say with certainty that I’ve accomplished that goal - because that’s what people tell me every single day! I think that’s very cool, and it’s something I’m proud of. On the flip side of the coin, there are probably people out there who look away because of the shirtlessness. To them, I say “close your eyes and just enjoy the music!”

I talk with singers often about whether they have had any kinds of hurdles  to overcome.  Have you experienced that?

In terms of technical hurdles, I have come a long way as a recording artist. As many people know, recording studio time is expensive! And, when this project first began, I couldn’t afford to get in a studio so I recorded all of my music directly into my laptop. In order to produce a better quality sound, I built a blanket fort in my living room and recorded songs underneath it. My boyfriend has home video footage of me doing this, and it’s very amusing because my bow kept hitting the blanket and messing me up! Thankfully, as my audience grew, so did my budget and I have been recording with a professional sound engineer for the past year and a half. 

Have you worked with singers?  On my graduate recital I did two Bach arias with violin obbligato with a friend--do you do that sort of thing?  

One of my early videos is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” which I performed with a vocal quartet called The Sound Four. And it just-so-happens that I am recording a song with another singer this very week! I am collaborating with an LA-based singer named Tom Goss and we are performing a duet of Ed Sheeran’s “Perfect”. It’s something I’m very excited about, and hope to do more of soon!

If you're performing with a symphony orchestra, do you perform shirtless?  Do you do whatever the organizer asks?  Do you insist on formal wear?

I have never performed shirtless with a symphony orchestra. I’ve been playing in orchestras for many years, but always in a suit and tails. I still think a fully shirtless orchestra would be a really fun thing, and I want to make it happen one day. 

My favorite question from Inside the Actors' Studio:  What is your favorite swear word?

Shit. It does the job without being too offensive - just like me!

Another favorite question from Inside the Actors' Studio (paraphrased):  Assuming there is a God, what do you want Him to tell you when you meet Him?

“Great abs!”

P.S.  Any of you barihunks out there whom I haven't approached for a profile--it's OK to volunteer.  I won't think it forward of you. 

Thursday, May 24, 2018

Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed….

Guest blogger EB reviews three performances seen whilst visiting New York last month:

Cendrillon, Massenet, Metropolitan Opera, April 20th 2018
Luisa Miller, Verdi, Metropolitan Opera, April 21st 2018
Tosca, Puccini, Metropolitan Opera, April 21st 2018

…something blue? Maybe Anna Netrebko’s dress for the finale of her first ever Tosca (more of her later) but otherwise the traditional wedding saying will do for a satisfyingly busy weekend at the Met, worth taking a trip from London for three operas in two days.

Three operas, three composers, one conductor. Bertrand de Billy was already listed for both the Tosca and Cendrillon performances, but then took over Luisa Miller after James Levine’s departure. More about him later, but from the start let me praise his sheer energy as much as his musical achievements.

First up, Cendrillon, or “something borrowed” - in this case Laurent Pelly’s production. It has appeared in a number of houses – I saw its London outing – having started life in Santa Fe as a vehicle for Joyce DiDonato. The production’s provenance explains its relative economy and low-rise designs – Santa Fe has limited flying facilities – and the sets, with their palate of whites, reds and golds, take their cue from the words of the fairy tale upon which the opera is based. The production is full of witty touches – business with lamps, rooftops, a comic ballet for Prince Charming’s would-be future wives. Massenet gives a straightforward rendition of the familiar tale: Pandolfe (Laurent Naouri, idiomatic but underpowered) has married the rich but ghastly Madame de la Haltière (a bombastic Stephanie Blythe, vocally and visually several sizes larger than life). She and her dreadful daughters treat Pandolfe and daughter Lucette, known as Cendrillon (DiDonato) abominably but her Fairy Godmother, La Fée (Kathleen Kim) ensures she goes to the ball, glass slippers and all. There she meets, and at midnight runs away from, Prince Charming (Alice Coote). They almost meet again in an enchanted forest – they can hear but not see eachother in Massenet’s most original scene – before a more traditional happy ending.

DiDonato, who has a real affinity and love for French music and language, remains a superb interpreter of the title role, such a contrast from her more recent outings as Didon and Semiramide. Perhaps there is a loss of the easy lightness I recall from London, but her remarkably humble portrayal of Lucette, her vocal control and her sense of style are impeccable. Coote’s voice has also moved in a different direction over the years – a thrilling Vitellia last time I saw her – but their duets were moving. Kim’s is perhaps the most successful performance, effortless and sparkling high above the stave, and looking a million dollars.

I had been expecting Parisian De Billy to have a natural affinity for this music, but the delicate score felt pedestrian at times, perhaps not helped by the size of the house. Somehow the particular combination of lightness and perfume that characterise Massenet was missing, although this is partly the score itself which isn’t quite the composer’s greatest work. Massenet’s best music is also his sexiest – think Manon, Thaïs, Hérodiade – and perhaps the innocent Lucette didn’t inspire him in quite the same way. I suspect my wish for the finale of La Cenerentola is a clue that De Billy and Massenet had missed the mark – but this was a highly enjoyable evening nonetheless.

Sonya Yoncheva, Placido Domingo, Pietr Beczala
“Something old” - the Met’s Luisa Miller, directed by Elijah Moshinsky’s and hailing from a bygone operatic age of brown and beige, the monumentally murky sets intermittently spotlit. Without screaming “Tyrol” or setting the stage alight dramatically, it proves an effective enough frame for the performers, and has a certain grandeur. And it’s grand operatic stuff, the tale of the Luisa (Sonya Yoncheva), innocent daughter of Miller (Placido Domingo), betrothed to Carlo – himself the disguised Rodolfo (Piotr Beczała), son of Count Walther (Alexander Vinogradov). Aided by cartoon baddie Wurm (Dmitriy Belosselskiy), a plot ensues whereby Luisa is forced to betray Rodolfo to save her father’s life; Luisa and Rodolfo take poison and die along with Wurm in the dramatic finale.

Whilst we are still in the transition from the bel canto structures of his earlier works to mid period Verdi, meaning that some of the music is formulaic, there is plenty to show us what would come later - some strong finales, one truly great tenor aria and a final act of duets and a trio which foreshadow Rigoletto and Forza. The fine overture was scorchingly performed by the Met orchestra and in all I found De Billy much more engaged with this music than with Massenet the night before, the playing and pacing very stylish.

The principals were very satisfying. Of Domingo’s “baritone” roles this is one of the most successful, once the listener accepts that his is not a Verdi baritone voice and takes the performance on its own terms. Some parts of the voice remain remarkably intact and powerful, and he sang better than at the broadcast a week before, with impeccable Verdian phrasing. Dramatically, he is most convincing as Luisa’s tragic, elderly father. In Domingo’s previous (tenor) role, Beczała poured forth irresistible, honeyed Italianate tones - much like Domingo in his prime in fact. This was my first encounter with the Polish tenor, and I hope the first of many. Yoncheva is a familiar performer from London stages and this role debut comes after some heavier recent assignments. She is convincingly girlish in the lighter, more florid music at the start, has the heft for the role’s (surprisingly) dramatic moments, and is touching in the finale. Vocally close to the demands of Violetta (one of Yoncheva’s signature roles in New York and elsewhere) it is not surprising that this is a great part for her at this stage in her career. Mention too for Vinogradov – a rolling, ample bass-baritone, oozing style – and Olesya Petrova, ear-catching in the smallish role of Federica.

Anna Netrebko and Yusif Eyvazov
Credit:  Sarah Krulwich, The New York Times
Last then, “Something New”, or new-ish. David McVicar's Tosca opened on New Year’s Eve (with Yoncheva in the title role, in fact), and returned principally to showcase Anna Netrebko’s long awaited first performances of the title role. Very long awaited in fact – people have been talking about her taking on this role for years. I was lucky enough to hear her as Lady Macbeth in London in March, when she was in splendid, fearless voice, and Floria Tosca inhabits a similar vocal ball park.

Netrebko has everything she needs for the title role – her familiar dark, even and beautiful tone is capable of scorching (but not screeching) intensity and she has a genuine chest voice which is well connected to the rest, crucial for some of the key low-lying lines. She was a little cautious at the very top – I think she will take more risks later – but histrionically holds little back. I have always been struck by her natural instinct for moving around the stage and her acting was spontaneous, never calculated – the leap to her death felt genuinely shocking. “Vissi d’Arte” was introspective and expressive without resorting to mannerism, and predictably caused quite an explosion in the house. Interviews have indicated she doesn’t perhaps feel the affinity for the role that she does for others, but I hope she keeps it in her repertoire, for she is very close to being a Tosca for the ages.

As in the London Macbeth, the tenor was her husband Yusif Eyvazov, a relatively late replacement for Marcelo Alvarez, and on these showings certainly more than just “Mr Netrebko”. His voice is light in colour, but vibrant and powerful, and vocally, he can act. He was a big hit with the house. Scarpia was Michael Volle, one of our truly versatile singing actors (I’ve heard him in French Verdi and Strauss already this season) and a seasoned Chief of Police. He was a superb foil to Netrebko in the second Act, not stinting on menace but stopping short of melodrama.

McVicar’s production looks fabulous, the opulent designs full of colour and detail. Designer John Mcfarlane is a painter, and at first sight his sets look naturalistic (the church and the palazzo feature a lot of paintings, after all). Alongside the naturalistic details like Scarpia’s roaring fire, however, there are touches of expressionism, the skewed perspectives culminating in a stunning final act, a queasy dawn cloudscape looming over the castle battlements and Roman skyline, all dramatically lit by David Finn. The production has no specific “angle” - McVicar understands that Puccini works best when following the score and directions to the letter – but there are some telling details (Tosca swigging wine before spotting the knife – her thoughts easily readable from Netrebko’s expressions), and the blocking is always purposeful (Tosca is cornered on the castle roof with the jump down her only route of escape).

De Billy gave his best performance of the weekend for me, leading his excellent principals and his debuting diva with a firm dramatic pulse. It was a busy weekend for him and a busy weekend for me – but once again the Met served up a feast well worth the flight across an ocean. Til next time…

Monday, May 21, 2018

Another glorious YouTube Verdi Requiem

Yes, dear reader, I know it's far too easy, but I've found another wonderful YouTube performance of the Verdi Requiem. This is actually not a live performance, but a video created from a 1967 recording under the baton of Georg Solti, with Dame Joan Sutherland, Marilyn Horne, Luciano Pavarotti, Matti Talvela, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Vienna State Opera Chorus. What's not to like?

All the soloists are in top form. Dame Joan, of course, had all the transcendent qualities in this recording that I mentioned in writing recently of a the 1960 recording. Truly the 1960s were her best decade. The floaty section like Huic ergo in the "Offertorio" and the Requiem aeternam section of "Libera me" were glorious. I can't say whether it's the influence of Mr. Solti or of seven more years of a high-profile career, motherhood, and marriage to Richard Bonynge, but Dame Joan's "Libera me" had more desperation than in the 1960 recording. As it should be! (I hate to say this, but Requiem aeternam section did include some of the droopy, artificially dark sound we associate with Dame Joan once she started listening to people's advice.)

I am not always of one mind about the blessed Marilyn Horne, whose presence has indeed been a great gift to the American opera and vocal music scene. Known for lyric mezzo-soprano roles, the great Miss Horne also sang Wagner and Berg soprano roles in her early career. I always thought her voice lay somewhere in between--low-lying soprano roles and high-lying mezzo roles. One associates the Verdi mezzo role with Amnerises and Azucenas, which was not Miss Horne's forte. But she delivered. Beauty of tone, warmth, expression, and the ability to be heard quite well in ensembles with full orchestra were all present. While her "Liber scriptus" didn't exactly part one's hair, as I have written of other mezzos, one certainly knew it was there! And her "Lux aeterna" was beautiful.

Luciano Pavarotti. What can one say? Again, in his prime, again with a sunny voice that imparts optimism and joy. This was the same year as the first Verdi Requiem I wrote of. The man could sing. No doubt about it. He could float the Hostias section of "Offertorium" and also deliver a powerful and sensitive "Ingemisco".

Matti Talvela. First, his Mors stubebit was absolutely in tune! Everything else was icing on the cake! He was powerful, passionate, and sensitive, delivering exactly what one expects of a true bass singing this role. (I have heard bass-baritones and been disappointed often.) Mr. Talvela is the bass soloist on another recording I plan to feature, and I will write more about him then, but suffice it to say that I have no complaints whatsoever about this performance.

Of course the chorus and orchestra were amazing. World-class ensembles tend to be. We heard from Mr. Solti the well-shaped phrases we love, and the control and precision, especially in contrapuntal sections, that sometimes eludes other conductors. Again, I often only notice conductors if something goes awry. This conductor earned my indifference, if that makes sense. I knew he was in control and I had nothing to worry about. This was a great performance.

Now that's what I call singing!

I have two Verdi Requiem recordings on CD beside me that I will get to, but Friday and Saturday I had the pleasure of listening to a recording I had downloaded and forgotten about. This was a 1960 recording under Carlo Maria Giulini with Dame Joan Sutherland, Fiorenza Cossotto, Luigi Ottolini, and Ivo Vinco, with the Philharmonia Chorus and Orchestra. What a joyful experience!

Each recording I hear is different in its own ways, but there is a huge amount of tradition holding most of them together. I might think, "Oh, this conductor uses a healthy bit of rubato there," or, "That conductor is doing more to keep the texture and rhythm on point than another one did."  In the end it's nit-picking.  It's hard to ruin the Verdi Requiem for me. (Believe me, people have tried!)

Now we must discuss the soloists, of course.  This was Dame Joan at her best, before she started listening to advice.  Of course she could float a vocal line like no other, and she had the vocal color and weight to hold her own against an orchestra with three other soloists. "Libera me" was heavenly--the tremendous contrasts of mood, the sublime quiet moments, the dramatic moments.

I've rhapsodized about Fiorenza Cossotto in this role before, and she was just as remarkable as expected. I always love a good "Lux aeterna", and Ms. Cossotto never fails to deliver.  I wasn't very familiar with Luigi Ottolini or Ivo Vinco before, but I quite liked them. Mr. Ottolini has the sound, the vocal heft required for this role, as well as the vocal subtlety it also requires.  "Ingemisco" was just what you want from a tenor, and Mr. Vinco's Mors stupebit section was both beautiful and mostly in tune.

Although this is a fantastic recording, this is a brief post, largely because I'm running out of things to say about the Verdi Requiem. I will never, ever tire of the work--of that I can promise you!--but it's hard to be creative. Since I have more an analytical nature, maybe I'll do a comparison spreadsheet when I've done all the recordings I'm going to do.

Friday, May 18, 2018

A retread, but a beautiful retread

For this installment in my Ten Verdi Requiem series (the notion of Ten Days fell by the wayside on day 2, I think!) I point you toward a magical performance I witnessed a few years ago and wrote about. Here is the link to that post. Please read and respond here with comments and questions.