Wednesday, December 10, 2014

My Bachtrack review of The Tender Land at Brooklyn College

Brooklyn College Conservatory of Music has a reputation as a hidden gem among New York music schools, sharing some of the big-name voice instructors the big three (Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music, Mannes) boast. The school attracts a very talented crop of singers. I must report with regret, however, that seeing Saturday's performance of Aaron Copland's The Tender Land (libretto by Horace Everett) in Brooklyn's beautiful Whitman Theater was disappointing.

Read the entire review.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Holly, Jolly, Gallantry!

I've often stated I'm a big fan of opera presented by New York's smaller groups, featuring young professionals. I was happy to see Sundays presentation by enCANTA Collective: Holly, Jolly, Gallantry: The Christmas Rose, at All Saints Church on Manhattan's Upper East Side. The program featured a collection of Christmas-related art songs, Douglas Moore's perennial favorite one-act opera Gallantry, and Frank Bridge's Christmas one-act The Christmas Rose.

Erika Hennings
The opening section, entitled Chansons de Noël, was performed by soprano Devony Smith, mezzo Briana Hunter, baritone Jeffrey Goble, pianist Nobuko Amemiya (Music Director for the entire program and Artistic Director of enCANTA Collective), and on three songs violist Ervin Dede. Based on the translation sheet provided with the program, one or two didn't seem to be Christmas related, but that is a tiny nit to pick when all the songs were sung so well. Mezzo Briana Hunter opened and closed the section with two Brahms songs with viola obbligato, Gestillte Sehnsucht and Geistlisches Wiegenlied. Her voice is beautiful and even throughout her large range. I would love to hear her in some of the roles listed in her bio--Carmen, Cendrillon, Orlofsky. Devony Smith used her beautiful soprano to perform the Hugo Wolf song Ach, des Knaben Augen, and the Joaquin Nin song Villancico Castellano. Baritone Jeffrey Goble gave us Max Reger's Maria am Rosenstrauch and Roger Quilter's The Cradle in Bethlehem. As with all the singers on the evening's program, I look forward to hearing more from these three.

Douglas Moore's (1893-1969) 1958 one-act opera Gallantry (libretto by Arnold Sundgaard) is a send-up of the sponsored television soap operas of the 1950s, complete with commercial announcements by a glamorous hostess. Mezzo Erika Hennings was a very glamorous hostess indeed, in silver lamé gown and heels that accentuate her already very tall stature. Having heard Miss Hennings before*, one must observe that this was among the best singing this reviewer has heard from her--very free and even throughout--and one was also pleased with her saucy presentation of the sponsored items, fictional Lockinvar soap and Billy Boy spray floor wax. Soprano Sonja Krenek was appropriately virtuous as the ingenue Nurse Lola Markham, showing marked alarm and even violent reproach to the advances of oily surgeon Dr. Gregg, quite capably sung by baritone Greg Hoyt. Tenor Marques Hollie, whom we saw but were prevented by poor acoustics from actually hearing in Dell'Arte Opera Ensemble's Macbeth, was quite amusing as Donald Hopewell, patient and boyfriend of Nurse Lola. Stage director Laura Hirschberg handled this opera well, but one wished for even more over-the-top nail biting and scenery chewing, accentuating the comedy of this delightful little opera. Miss Hennings and Miss Krenek were the two vocal standouts.

Adam Margulies
Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is known more for his chamber music than for his vocal works, as well as for tutoring Benjamin Britten in composition. His pre-World War I music is more popular than his music following the war, which adopted some of the post-Romantic and expressionistic mannerisms of the time. The Christmas Rose (libretto by Margaret Kemp-Welch and Constance Cotterell), premiered in 1932, during that post-war period. Having never heard this opera before Sunday, I can not say I'm eager to hear it again. I found the solo vocal writing too harsh and rambling, and the libretto lacking in charm or ingenuity. In a nutshell, two children of one of the shepherds on Christmas Night follow their father and the other shepherds, but despair over having no gift to present to the Christ child, only to have flowers miraculously grow and bloom in front of them--instant gift!

Although I didn't like the opera, I liked the singing. Musically, the most interesting and beautiful part to this reviewer was the women's chorus of angels. Bass-baritone Adam Margulies was the most exciting solo voice in this opera, in a role that didn't fit his voice at all. I am eager to hear more from this young man. (I learned later this role could be called a tenor role. I couldn't imagine why anyone aside from the Marquis de Sade would write something so torturous for a bass, but it could be handled by a tenor with a low voice.) Soprano Marie Marquis was another standout, with a beautiful voice and accomplished technique, but the unnecessarily stratospheric range of parts of the role left one more sympathetic than excited. Again, Laura Hirschberg staged this opera very well, using the chancel at All Saints quite effectively. Having much of the action take place under the suspended Advent wreath was an unintended charm, I'm sure, but effective.

Nobuko Amemiya
Once again, in both operas, Music Director Nobuko Amemiya gave wonderful support while playing the difficult piano scores. One hears through the grapevine that Ms. Amemiya is also a pleasure to work with.

I am charmed to be introduced to the work of enCANTA Collective. Quoting from their web site:
The name enCANTA Collective is a play on words: encanta in Spanish means “it delights,” canta is from the Spanish or Italian verb “to sing.”
Delight this program certainly did. Not one singer displeased this reviewer, and more than one thrilled. I hope to hear them all as they grow in their careers.

I applaud enCANTA's accomplishments, and I hope to hear more good music making from them in the future.

*Full disclosure: Miss Hennings is a personal friend of this reviewer, which gives said reviewer a rich memory of other performances for comparison.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Sad winds where your voice was; Tears, tears where my heart was*

Photo credit:  ALAMY
I've been given quite a few CDs to evaluate and publicize in the past, and I've loved many of them, but none has moved me the way AN AIDS QUILT SONGBOOK: SING FOR HOPE has. I only regret that this post goes in after midnight on Dec. 1, so World AIDS Day has come and gone.

At 52 (as of next Monday), I'm a very fortunate gay man of my generation--first, that I'm alive, and second, in that most of the dead men in my address book were taken in another, less agonizing way. But I remember when the AIDS Quilt was new. Heck--I remember when AIDS was new. I remember when AIDS was by default a terminal illness, not a manageable one. I remember the phenomenon of the "double whammy"--first telling one's family you're gay, then telling them you have AIDS. I remember the feeing of fear and despair, even though I wasn't touched nearly as closely as many I knew.

This Langston Hughes poem, which is included as one of the songs (composed by John Musto, sung by Sasha Cooke) tells the story of far too many from the 80s and 90s, and even our current day:
Litany by Langston Hughes 
Gather up
In the arms of your pity
The sick, the depraved,
the desperate, the tired,
All the scum of our weary city
Gather up
In the arms of your pity.
Gather up
In the arms of your love –
Those who expect
No love from above.

Nowadays there is a popular perception that AIDS is no longer a deadly disease. Well, that is wrong. And people with AIDS/HIV still need services they can't afford to provide for themselves. I'm happy projects like this take a step toward educating people, and take many steps toward supporting AIDS/HIV services and research organizations through sales proceeds.

As usual, I can't describe all the tracks on this wonderful CD.  I can only speak of a few.  The disc features many of my favorite singers--people at the heights of their careers, like Joyce Didonato and Matthew Polenzani, and great singers on the rise, like Jamie Barton and Daniel Okulitch and Melody Moore. Every song is sung beautifully, with great artistry and attention to the lyrics. I can not fault any singer for anything. I love it when I can say that.

My very favorite track is called "ATRIPLA!" (music & lyrics by Eric Reda), sung by Jamie Barton with Kenneth Merrill at piano. The text is taken from a drug insert, listing uses, side effects, contra-indications with great joy and humor. The song cleverly shows the ludicrous nature of much this language, and Miss Barton shows great humor in her performance.

The next  track, "Her Final Show" (music Drew Hemenger, lyrics Rafael Campo), sung by tenor Anthony Dean Griffey with pianist Thomas Bagwell, shows both the vulnerability of a dying drag queen accustomed to grandiosity, and the compassion of a medical professional. Remember that HIV/AIDS has always hit sexual minorities much harder than it hit the "mainstream" gay white male community. 

"Retro" (Daniel Okulitch, baritone, Glen Roven, piano) is my favorite of any Glen Roven song I've heard--which says a lot. The poem by Gavin Geoffrey Dillard talks about the anachronism of enduring HIV treatment during the 90s and 2000s.
...a cocktail, a cocktail
it sounds so Bohème
until the bar closes
and so does the dream 

There are many more songs, both lyrical and rhythmic.  Twenty-three tracks in total, including four readings of poems.  And in the final track, we have some assurance that we will all be met with love when our time is over (remember the old saying to ask poets, saints and fools about these things):
From At Last by Wendell Bery (music by Scott Gendel, sung by Camille Zamora)
...We come
to the space between ourselves,
the narrow doorway, and pass through
into the land of the wholly loved.

My wish for all of your holiday seasons, whether you're Christmas people or not:  Don't get your family members more stuff, your mothers more knick-knacks to dust, your nieces and nephews more toys to exchange. If you're reading this blog, you're probably not destitute, and your family isn't either. Support your family when necessary, of course, but support them spiritually and mentally by supporting charities in their names:  The Heifer Project, AMFAR, local AIDS/HIV service organizations like GMHC or God's Love We Deliver, or something close to your heart, like Education Through Music is for me.  Even if, as I do every year, you endure looks on your family's faces that say "Where's our stuff?", remember all of you will be better off if you share what you have with others who are less fortunate.

*From "Autumn" by Walter de la Mare (1873-1956);
  song setting by Robert Chesley, no. 2 on the CD.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Great Singer of the Week: Gianni Poggi

I discovered a mid-20th century tenor I hadn't known before--Gianni Poggi. A very nice voice indeed. He sang with Callas and Tebaldi (not at the same time, of course!), and he sang at the Met. Here is his rather brief Wikipedia bio-blurb, and following are some YouTube clips. Alas, most are audio only.

To the left is a blatantly ganked photo of Sr. Poggi in Ballo.

Following is the Siciliana from Cavalleria Rusticana, rather more brisk than I'm accustomed to, but I like the tempo. Orchestra del Teatro San Carlo di Napoli, Ugo Rapalo, conductor

Mamma, quel vino è generoso from the same performance, apparently.

Des Grieux's aria from act 3 of Puccini's Manon Lescaut. Live Piacenza 1967 (no conductor credit given).

La Bohème, Orchestra del Teatro di San Carlo di Napoli

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Legendary mezzo-soprano Grace Bumbry leads the way in Celebrating a King

On January 17 and January 19, 2015 at 7:00 p.m. Courtney’s Stars of Tomorrow: Celebrating a King presents legendary mezzo-soprano and 2009 Kennedy Center honoree Grace Bumbry. “We are thrilled to be able to present these concerts commemorating the life and singular achievement of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,” said CST Founder/Artistic Director Courtney Carey. “We are equally excited about the opportunity to present a living legend, icon, humanitarian, and extraordinary artist--Grace Bumbry.” 

Grace Bumbry will sing Johannes Brahms’ Alto Rhapsody (Op. 53) with alumni members of the Morehouse College Glee Club, members of the Ephesus Seventh Day Adventist Church Chancel Choir, and the Brooklyn Ecumenical Choir of Bedford Stuyvesant. The program will also include spiritual classics sung by Ms. Bumbry and a roster of ingénue operatic talents including Marquita Raley, Kali Wilder, and Martin Woods, led by conductors Ted Taylor and Ramon Bryant. 

About Courtney’s Stars of Tomorrow 
Courtney's Stars of Tomorrow is an arts conduit organization committed to promoting and presenting classical musicians of the highest caliber, featuring them in concert, recital, and opera. Courtney's Stars of Tomorrow's targets a multi-generational, ethnically diverse audience of both classical music lovers and those who have never been exposed to the medium. Through education initiatives and partnerships, Courtney’s Stars of Tomorrow will also extend opportunities to school-age children to study, create, present, and attend classical music performances.  

Our mission is to: Educate, Cultivate, Present, and Inspire! 

In which Taminophile again proves himself a bel canto bear

I've shared how I loved this, with Joyce Didonato and Elza van den Heever from the Met's production:

A video made the rounds shortly after JDD sang Maria Stuarda at the Met integrating her Maria Stuarda with her Elisabetta for a very interesting confrontation scene indeed, but of course, I can't find it today. If you can, please send me the link!

I stumbled upon this clip this week, with dear Beverly Sills and Eileen Farrell (audio only, alas):

Monterrat Caballe, Bianca Berini, Armando Gatto conductor. Teatro del Liceo de Barcelona. January 6, 1979

As a great admirer of both Leyla Gencer and Shirley Verrett I couldn't leave this out:

Dear Coloraturafan's "Choose your favorite Vil Bastarda"

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Shabby Little Shocker at Merkin Concert Hall

On Tuesday evening, The Martha Cardona Theater presented Mr. Puccini's Tosca in concert at Merkin Concert Hall, a very ambitious undertaking. Daniel Cardona deserves kudos for producing this concert. Aside from a few technical glitches and a ragged orchestra, it was mostly a successful evening.

Tosca is based on Victorien Sardou’s play, La Tosca, with libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppa Giacosa. It is a story of political intrigue, murder, lust, and a jealous soprano. A Parisian critic wrote in 1900 that Tosca “is coarsely puerile, pretentious and vapid.” (The phrase “shabby little shocker” comes from musicologist Joseph Kerman’s 1956 book Opera as Drama, not from Puccini’s time.) Puerile or not, Tosca can always be counted on to sell tickets, and audiences leave humming its melodies. When done well, Tosca can be devastating.

And devastating it was. Soprano Stella Zambalis was 100% committed to Tosca from beginning to end. Her Tosca was both regal and childish, loving and self absorbed. Ms. Zambalis has had a long and distinguished career, and Tuesday's performance left little doubt of the reasons behind her success. Jason Stearns was an equally passionate Scarpia. Large of voice and commanding of presence, Mr. Stearns was every bit the equal of Ms. Zambalis in stage presence and commitment. Ta'u Pupu'a was a virile and ardent Cavaradossi.

All three principals had sung their roles at least once before, which was quite evident in watching and hearing them. Show pieces from the opera--Vissi d'arte, the Te Deum, Cavaradossi's two arias--as well as moments such as "Vittoria! Vittoria" and "O dolci mani"--were all sung and acted beautifully. All three singers had many truly stunning moments vocally, but all three also had one or two moments when fatigue or wear had a subtle effect on the most difficult vocal passages.

Smaller roles were filled with younger singers. The Angelotti of Matthew Curran and the Sacristan of Kian Freitas were particular favorites.

Brian Holman conducted a pick-up orchestra of very young-looking players. Their playing was a bit ragged--synchronization issues, missed entrances, intonation issues, balance issues with the cast--but Mr. Holman dealt with the apparent inexperience of the group and kept everything together.

The opera was semi-staged on Merkin's Concert Hall's stage. No program credit was given for a director, but I suspect it was Mr. Cardona himself. The size of the stage and the number of people on it at times made this a bit problematic. I feared the close proximity of cast to orchestra might interfere with the orchestra's playing. All three acts ended with someone on the floor, including Scarpia on one knee at the end of the Act I Te Deum, and it seemed awkward when they got up and walked off stage either with or after the conductor.

Quibbles aside, overall I call this concert a success. The rest of the audience certainly agreed with that opinion, generous with applause and shouts of "Bravo!"

Jason Stearns  Stella Zambalis Ta'u Pupu'a